For the first time since 2012, Philippine coast guard vessels have patrolled the waters of the Scarborough Shoal. The disputed cluster of maritime features is claimed by both Manila and Beijing and has long been a source of tension. But a rapprochement spearheaded by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has seen moves toward some form of cooperation. The patrols, carried out by two Philippine vessels, were confirmed Nov. 7 by a representative of the coast guard, who added that more could return in the future. The representative declined to respond to questions as to whether the ships interacted with Chinese vessels in the area.
China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, occupying the major features of the group and blocking Philippine coast guard and fishing vessels since that time. But just days after Duterte's high-profile visit to China in late October, Beijing quietly allowed Philippine civilian fishing vessels to return to the shoal. Since that time, however, Chinese coast guard vessels have continued their patrols and, according to recently published satellite imagery, are regulating the entrance to the shoal. To date, Philippine fishing vessels have reported no issues with gaining access to the waters since being allowed to return.
It is still unclear precisely how China will respond to the deployment of Philippine coast guard vessels, but it may also allow patrols to coexist. Prior to Duterte's visit, policy influencers in both countries floated similar measures, including fishing cooperation or joint patrols. In fact, the momentum building around Manila's diplomatic rebalance away from Washington may convince Beijing to grant further concessions. It was China's 2012 seizure of the Scarborough Shoal that pushed the Philippines to initially pursue stronger security ties with the United States. Beijing is now calculating that easing restrictions on the shoal could further encourage Manila's rebalance.
However, cooperation in the Scarborough Shoal does not mean that Beijing will cede actual control of its maritime features. China has been amenable to the Philippines largely because its position in the Scarborough Shoal is ironclad: Beijing's forces occupy the features, possess advanced maritime enforcement capabilities and are supported by armed fishing vessels. And it is still unclear whether the two sides can even reach a binding settlement over the shoal with the question of sovereignty still up in the air following a controversial international ruling. Both countries are also still haggling over the wording of an agreement, with Beijing insisting the deal stipulates that it will only "allow access" to the Philippines.
Nonetheless, an agreement with the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal could push some claimant countries to reconsider their dealings with China. This is particularly true for Vietnam, which had long relied on Philippine and U.S. cooperation to stand up to China's assertive policies. The talks between China and the Philippines may enable Beijing to demonstrate that bilateral mechanisms can be used to satisfactorily resolve disputes. (China would much prefer to keep third parties, particularly the United States, out of talks.) Of course, any cooperation will depend on political calculations in claimant countries and China as it adjusts its maritime strategies, which could entail further disruptions in the sea as well.