After months of diplomatic haggling between China and the Philippines, the two may be moving toward an understanding on their competing claims in the South China Sea. China's ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jinhua, announced Aug. 29 that Beijing was willing to hold bilateral talks with Manila and would "look into the possibility" of allowing Filipino fishermen to fish in the disputed waters, particularly around the Scarborough Shoal. The ambassador's comments come in the wake of a series of meetings between Chinese and Philippine officials, as well as several instances of accommodating rhetoric from both sides.
They also come nearly seven weeks after a landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated China's sweeping claims over the South China Sea. Yet despite the ostensible victory for his country, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appears willing to temporarily set aside the court's decision to mend ties with China. To that end, Duterte has repeatedly called for talks between Manila and Beijing, and he has vowed not to raise the court's ruling at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in September. So far China has responded well to his outreach, particularly as it struggles to manage the fallout of the ruling elsewhere and rising tension with Japan in the East China Sea.
Of course, this by no means indicates that detente will come at the expense of the Philippines' maritime sovereignty. Duterte has proved himself to be a savvy politician, and he is undoubtedly trying to use the upper hand Manila has gained to pursue better economic deals with China while continuing to cooperate with other powers, such as Japan and the United States.
One of the key concessions the Philippines has discussed with China is a proposal for joint fishing around the Scarborough Shoal. Since China seized it in 2012, the shoal has lain at the center of the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing, both because of its proximity to the Philippine mainland (about 120 nautical miles) and because of the repeated clashes between Chinese and Philippine fishermen in the waters around it. (China has attempted to block foreign fishermen from tapping into the shoal's waters, which are rich with fish.) When the international court ruled against Beijing's claim to the shoal, fears arose that China would retaliate somehow, prompting the United States to warn against further "provocative action" on Beijing's part.
Since China hopes to avoid inciting a U.S. military response, its strategy around the Scarborough Shoal has effectively run its course. For now, at least, this has created room for cooperation with the Philippines, as has Manila's own efforts to regulate the activities of its fishermen in the area. Of course, any deal between the two countries would depend on their continuing political will to abide by it and on how broader disputes over China's claims in the South China Sea play out. Though a deal on joint fishing may not lead to broader cooperation in the South China Sea, it would prevent one of the most heated aspects of the dispute from escalating.