MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed hope on Sunday that fishermen would be able to return to the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in the next few days.
Duterte confirmed on Saturday that the Scarborough Shoal was discussed during his four-day trip to China which was aimed at paving the way for what he calls a new commercial alliance as relations with longtime ally the United States deteriorate.
“Let us just wait for a few more days, maybe we could return to Scarborough Shoal,” Duterte said in a speech in Tuguegarao City, north of the capital, where he helped deliver aid to victims of a recent typhoon.
It was not immediately clear if that meant China had given an indication it would end its four-year blockade of the shoal.
“I’m not sure if they will fulfil [what was discussed],” Duterte said.
Two Chinese sources with ties to the leadership told Reuters last week China would consider giving Philippine fishermen conditional access to disputed waters in the South China Sea after a meeting between the presidents of the two countries.
China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, denying Philippine fishermen access to its fishing grounds.
The seizure formed part of a case the Philippines took to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which in July rejected China’s territorial claims over much of the South China Sea, including its assertion of a 200 mile (320 kilometer) exclusive economic zone around the disputed Spratly Islands.
China immediately declared the ruling “null and void” but said it was time for talks again between the countries directly involved in the territorial disputes to reach a peaceful resolution.
“China said it is theirs. I also told them it is ours,” Duterte said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of it.
Duterte’s efforts to engage China mark a reversal in Philippine foreign policy since he took office on June 30.
While building China ties, Duterte has denounced the United States, apparently after being infuriated by US criticism of his bloody war on drugs.
He has called U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch”, told him to “go to hell” and thrown long-standing military ties into question.
On Thursday, while in China, Duterte provoked fresh diplomatic alarm by announcing his “separation” from the United States. He struck a more conciliatory tone as he arrived home on Friday.