Filipinos warned against provoking Chinese in disputed waters

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) Filipinos are justifiably proud of their victory in The Hague, but they should not provoke strong reactions from the Chinese in the maritime dispute in the South China Sea, foreign relations and international law experts said Friday.

Filipino fishermen, who are on the frontline of Manila’s claims in the disputed waters, should avoid venturing into areas where the Chinese have built up strong presence like the Scarborough Shoal west of Luzon.

A group of fishermen who tried to approach the shoal on Thursday in hopes of being able to fish there again were forced to return to Zambales empty-handed by four large Chinese coast guard vessels guarding the traditional fishing ground.

The international Arbitral Tribunal, ruling on Tuesday on the case filed by Manila against Beijing three years ago, debunked China’s vast claims in the South China Sea demarcated by its “nine-dash line.” It also said China violated Philippine fishing rights in the Scarborough Shoal and its artificial island-building caused severe damage to the marine environment.

Also read: What you need to know about the Arbitral Tribunal's ruling

China did not participate in the proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration and rejected the Tribunal’s decision.

Murray Hiebert, senior adviser and deputy director of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Filipino fishermen should not sail to the Scarborough Shoal for now.

“I think that's something that needs to be negotiated between the two governments,” Hiebert said in a forum Friday at the University of the Philippines. “I don't think you flaunt this in the face of the Chinese right with sending little fishermen and 2-meter long boats and to try to enter (the shoal).”

Hiebert, however, agreed the government should test the waters – and that includes sending former President Fidel Ramos to raise this issue in Beijing – and then see "how strongly China reacts."

President Rodrigo Duterte said he wants Ramos to initiate the talks with Beijing. Ramos, 88, has not accepted the assignment, citing his advanced age and other commitments.

Hiebert said the Philippines should be careful not “to have the Chinese just react violently or detain fishermen.”

“I think we want to move into this gradually rather than overnight,” he said.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a strong and open champion of the Philippine case against China’s “nine-dash line” claims, agreed the country should now talk with China.

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“Because the tribunal said that (Scarborough Shoal) is a common fishing ground … we have to talk to China what are the ground rules,” he said in an interview Thursday with CNN Philippines.

“Do we fish there to our heart's content so that the following day there's nothing left? Because you need to have a sustainable stock,” Carpio said.

Solicitor General Jose Calida said diplomacy is the way to go.

“The Philippines will not sacrifice what we have obtained from this decision, but we will also pursue diplomatic means, hopefully to convince China that we can co-exist peacefully,” he said.

Carpio said Filipinos must realize it will take a long time before the Chinese can accept the decision that takes away what has been ingrained in their minds generations as their vast domain in the South China Sea.

He said the rest of the world has to help the Philippines convince China to accept this new reality set by the Tribunal’s decision.

The Philippines cannot force China out of these disputed areas, but what they have constructed on these artificial islands can still be put to good use not only for the two countries but all others in the region, including other claimants, Carpio said.

“This is a peaceful endeavor. We don't have to go to war,” he said.

Meanwhile, it seems all the Filipino fishermen can do is wait – until China complies with the ruling or reach a compromise arrangement with the Philippines on what activities would be mutually beneficial.

Related: Ex-SolGen: PH's case vs. China may have done more harm than good