24.2.17

China to Philippines: No Building on Scarborough Shoal

Chinese President Xi Jinping promised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that China would not build on the disputed reef known as Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The agreement, which was reached in October, was made public on Thursday by the Philippine foreign minister.

The Cipher Take: The shoal in question, while geographically minuscule, has had an oversized impact on relations between the two countries. China seized the reef, a lucrative area for Philippine fishermen, in 2012. The Philippines filed an international court case against China in 2013, with the court ruling against Chinese claims last summer. However, Duterte, the newly elected Philippine President, sought to improve relations with China and did not push the issue with Xi. The two leaders reached an agreement in October to share fishing access, and as it now appears, also an understanding that China will not build on the shoal. For The United States, the news may come as bittersweet. The United States condemns China’s island militarization activities and would likely respond—the Trump Administration has said as much—if China built on Scarborough Shoal, given its proximity to a Philippine naval base that is strategically important to the United States’ defense of the region. While Xi’s promise not to build on the Shoal is good news, it also signals Manila’s closer relations with Beijing and its drift away from Washington under Duterte’s leadership.

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