MANILA, Philippines – Experts warned the Philippine government to remain vigilant against China's actions in the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), saying the relatively peaceful situation now may only be temporary.
The Chinese Coast Guard recently stopped harassing Filipino fishermen in the shoal.
"Within last week or so there has been some retreat by the Chinese in Scarborough Shoal. I would suggest that it is a temporary reaction on the part of China," retired US Navy Captain Raul Pedrozo said during an academic conference at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law on Monday, November 14, to tackle the historic arbitration case between Manila and Beijing.
The Philippines was also cautioned against weakening its position on ownership of the shoal in exchange for fishermen's access to the fishing ground.
Scarborough is located off the coast of Zambales province, well within the country's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
"Scarborough Shoal is clearly a sovereign of the Philippines... Any negotiation to access Scarborough is a mistake because that is already your territory," Pedrozo added.
UP College of Law professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea, said tensions could still flare up in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) given the absence of a written deal between Manila and Beijing on actions in the disputed waters.
"Definitely, we still need to mitigate the risk of a serious incident or crisis," said Batongbacal.
He added that risks include the possible deployment of another oil rig, which is "still on the table given that we do not have a solid and clear written agreement."
"We can only presume that the current modus vivendi, at best, is temporary. It will depend on what happens next," said Batongbacal.
China's military triangle
Pedrozo said China's interest in the shoal located on the eastern part of the South China Sea remains: It will complete its military control over the disputed waters, having military facilities on Woody Island in the north and on several islands in the Spratlys in the middle.
"Scarborough Shoal is the lynchpin of security in the South China Sea... If they gain control of Scarborough, they will complete their triangle of military control over the South China Sea," Pedrozo explained.
"It is important that the Philippines stands its ground and not allow Scarborough to become yet another artificial island of China," he added.
Other countries like the US, Australia, and Singapore have been vocal about their interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the waters, where trillions of dollars worth of goods pass through each year.
China has reclaimed 7 reefs in the West Philippine Sea, including Mischief Reef which the arbitration ruling said is part of the Philippines' EEZ.
In September, the Philippines expressed concern when it monitored increased presence of Chinese ships in the shoal. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said back then that a Philippine Air Force plane saw 4 Chinese Coast Guard ships, two barge-like vessels, and two suspected troop ships near the shoal. (READ: PH to China: Explain ships in Scarborough Shoal)
Things changed after the state visit of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to China in October. Filipino fishermen, who have suffered harassment from Chinese Coast Guard ships that practically occupied their traditional fishing grounds, celebrated bountiful catches.
The Philippine Coast Guard "tested the waters," too, deploying its ships to Scarborough Shoal to patrol the country's EEZ.
Batongbacal said these were clearly China's reactions to the arbitration ruling even as it publicly dismissed the case.
"In terms of resuming access, it (ruling) apparently had an effect. Certainly, without the case, China will probably not have been as welcoming or giving," said Batongbacal.
But Pedrozo said China could return to its aggressive behavior in Scarborough if interest in the historic ruling wanes.
"I hope my opinion is incorrect, but I have dealt with South China Sea issues well over 20 years now. China, once it reaches a certain level of tension in an area, will reduce its presence there and go somewhere else... When it is to their advantage to make their presence in the South China Sea again, I believe that it is their intention to do so," said Pedrozo.
The arbitration ruling junked China's sweeping claims over the South China Sea, upholding freedom of navigation and the Philippines' sovereignty over maritime features – Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and Reed Bank.