MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - There are indications the Chinese Coast Guard has left Scarborough Shoal, one week after President Rodrigo Duterte visited China to repair strained ties, his spokesman said Friday.
China held the rich fishing ground since the end of a naval standoff in 2012, and its coast guard repeatedly shooed away Filipino boats even after Manila's victory in a United Nations-backed arbitration court in July.
Duterte, who is shifting alliances to China from the US, had said that Filipino fishermen could soon resume fishing in Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines' 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
“Apparently there have been some physical observations… All I can say is that at this stage, it has been observed that there are no longer any Chinese coast guards in the area,” Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters.
Asked if he was aware of reports Manila and Beijing had agreed on fishing rights in the shoal, Abella said: "All we know is based on results, the fishermen can now go into those waters."
Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque, who was part of Duterte's delegation to China, told ANC last Tuesday that the understanding between the two countries would mean the withdrawal of Chinese ships from the shoal.
"And my understanding is, it's not even going to be joint fishing. The Chinese will completely leave Scarborough. They will actually ask their fishermen to leave and their coast guard to leave. They would restore the status quo ante," he said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also confirmed that Filipino fishermen can now freely go to the shoal.
"That's the report we got from our coast guard. Since three days ago, there are no longer Chinese ships, Coast Guard or Navy, in the Scarborough area," Lorenzana said.
"We are welcoming this development. Our fishermen have not been fishing there since 2012. This will return to them their traditional source of livelihood."
An end to the standoff over the shoal is still a complex and potentially combustible issue for both countries.
Some Philippine commentators say Manila may object to any reference to its fishermen being "permitted" by China to return, while Beijing might be wary of appearing to be softening its position on what it calls "indisputable" sovereignty.
There was some confusion about the situation at sea, however, with a Philippine military spokesman earlier saying Chinese vessels were "still there." Some fishermen familiar with the area said the same.
Asked on Friday about the return of Philippine fishermen to the shoal, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang made no mention of a coastguard withdrawal.
The two countries "were able to work together on issues regarding the South China Sea and appropriately resolve disputes," Lu told a regular briefing.
Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and said relations between the two countries have entered "springtime." He returned to the country with $24 billion in investment pledges.
China also lifted restrictions on banana exports from the Philippines, which were imposed following the standoff at Scarborough Shoal.
China's Lu hailed Duterte's recent visit as a success and said both countries were able to discuss the South China Sea impasse.
"It is completely possible that the bilateral relationship can recover," Lu said.
"I can tell you that the two sides are in communication."
The Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague said China's claims in the South China Sea had no historical basis. It ruled on a challenge filed by Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.
Duterte's government refused to flaunt the ruling and reached out to China with former president Fidel Ramos as special envoy. - with Reuters