MANILA -- China can prove its sincerity in resolving territorial disputes with the Philippines by refraining from sending back its fishing vessels to a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea, a maritime law expert said Wednesday.
Ramon Tulfo, a broadcaster recently appointed as President Rodrigo Duterte's special envoy to Beijing, said last week that some 100 Chinese militia boats were "withdrawn" from waters off Pag-asa Island following backchannel talks.
There were some 270 Chinese ships around the area last year, which means that there will still be around 170 ships there, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
Chinese vessels may have left the area because of a fishing ban from May to August, and could return when the typhoon season ends in November or December, he said.
"The only reason why they won't return would be if China itself restrains them, if China itself doesn't deploy them anymore. It's a test of China's sincerity," he told ANC.
"If they're really serious about reducing the chances of incidents, trying to promote an atmosphere of cooperation and stability in that area, then they should not be deploying such massive numbers of fishing vessels," he said.
The Philippines and China have seen improved ties under President Rodrigo Duterte, who set aside a United Nations-backed tribunal's 2016 ruling that invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
Manila's legal leverage "somewhat diminished" because China ramped up its island-building and harvesting of resources in the waterway, said Batongbacal.
The best time to raise the ruling, he said, was in 2017 when the Philippines chaired the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan also have partial claims to the waterway. The US, while not a party to the maritime dispute, has been calling for restraint and freedom of navigation on the South China Sea.