MANILA - By letting Philippine fishermen return to the disputed Scarborough Shoal, China is complying with an international arbitral ruling, just without acknowledging it, Manila's incoming ambassador to Beijing said on Tuesday.
Jose Santiago Santa Romana, an academic and political appointee of President Rodrigo Duterte, said Beijing's end to its blockade of the South China Sea shoal meant that it was essentially following the July award by the tribunal in The Hague - a ruling China refuses to recognise.
Filipino fishermen say that since Duterte returned from his high-profile visit to repair ties with China last month, the Chinese coastguard has largely left them alone.
"China is now complying with the arbitration court's ruling, that's what our American lawyer is saying," he told Filipino businessmen at a forum, referring to Paul Reichler, the chief legal counsel for the Philippines in the case it lodged in 2013.
"China has insisted sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal but promised to do something about our fishermen when the president raised the issue."
The remarks by Santa Romana, a scholar who specialises in China, may not be to Beijing's liking given its disdain for the tribunal.
It has bristled at calls by Western countries to comply with the award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which it called a "law-abusing tribunal", a "farce" and a "puppet" of external forces.
China claims most of the energy-rich waters through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
The tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines in numerous areas, saying China's "nine-dash line" denoting its maritime sovereignty claims has no basis. It also declared the Scarborough Shoal a traditional fishing ground that all claimants were entitled to exploit.
The ambassador-designate said the Scarborough Shoal was discussed at length when he joined a team led by former Philippine president Fidel Ramos to meet "old friends" in Hong Kong in August with a view to breaking the ice with China.
"China has made a commitment that it will not reclaim the shoal, preserving it as a marine sanctuary, so it is not allowing even Chinese fishermen to fish inside the lagoon," he said, referring to what was discussed.
"The two countries should now work out some rules of engagement between our two coastguards to avoid a repeat of the standoff."
When asked last week about the Scarborough Shoal, China's foreign ministry last week said the situation "has not changed and will not change".