Updated 21:29 PM PHT Thu, February 23, 2017
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Rodrigo Duterte that China will not reclaim or build structures on Scarborough Shoal, said Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr.
"They have told it to us — that they are not building. This happened during the visit of the President (to Beijing). I would not want to give any further details on that," Yasay told reporters in an ambush interview.
But he went on to reveal that it appears China indeed planned to turn the shoal into a garrison, as it had done to seven reefs in the Spratly island group.
"In fact there were intelligence reports coming from the Americans that (the Chinese) were poised to send dredging vessels precisely to convert this shoal into artificial islands but now we are happy and assured of the fact that they will not do so," Yasay said, adding that Beijing now denies the plan ever existed.
Scarborough Shoal lies 119 nautical miles (220 kilometers) west of Masinloc, Zambales. Filipinos call it "Panatag Shoal" and "Bajo De Masinloc." The Chinese call it "Huangyan Dao." It figures in the 17th century Murillo-Velarde Map of the Philippines as "Panacot" shoal.
China claims ownership of almost the entire South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal.
Fishermen from Zambales and Pangasinan consider the shoal their traditional fishing ground, where they used to haul bountiful amounts of seafood in summer. But ever since a naval standoff in 2012, the Chinese have blocked their access to it.
The situation improved for Filipino fishermen in October 2016, after Duterte's state visit to Beijing. They are now able to fish around the shoal without the Chinese Coast Guard accosting them.
The ruling issued on July 12, 2016 by an international arbitral tribunal on Manila's maritime case against Beijing states that Scarborough Shoal is part of the global commons:
"The Tribunal finds that Scarborough Shoal has been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen of many nationalities and declares that China has, through the operation of its official vessels at Scarborough Shoal from May 2012 onwards, unlawfully prevented fishermen from the Philippines from engaging in traditional fishing at Scarborough Shoal."
Beijing rejects the ruling and continues to deploy its coast guard to the shoal, while the Philippine Coast Guard mostly stays away to avoid confrontation.
Plans to reclaim
In June 2016, former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez showed reporters a picture of what appeared to be a plan to build structures on the shoal, supposedly leaked from the Chinese government.
Golez warned that if China succeeded in turning the shoal into a garrison with missile launchers, it would have Manila and many other parts of the Philippines within striking range.
Soon after assuming the presidency, Duterte reached out to China, stating his intention to rekindle diplomatic ties. He opted to "set aside" the tribunal's ruling to make way for one-on-one negotiations of the maritime dispute.
Yasay clarified that the government has not abandoned the country's territorial claims.
"Our position is that we own this territorial … the features that we're occupying, that we own this. We have control over this. We have jurisdiction over this insofar as these issues are concerned. But that is not an issue that we have brought before the arbitral tribunal," Yasay told reporters.
When asked what would happen if China did reclaim Scarborough Shoal, Yasay said it would be a "game changer" in the government's dealings with Beijing.
But he said he is confident that China will not do so.