Cayetano 'praying for a miracle' to resolve South China Sea dispute

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 14) — The country's top diplomat is banking on two things to resolve the South China Sea dispute: prayer and diplomacy.

"I'm praying every day and I'm praying hard na may miracle na mangyari diyan na maresolve ang South China Sea issue," Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said in a media briefing Thursday.

[Translation: "I'm praying every day and I'm praying hard for a miracle to happen to resolve the South China Sea issue."]

He said the government has taken a "slow" diplomatic approach to dealing with its long-standing maritime row with China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei over areas in the South China Sea.

Cayetano said the government cannot divulge the contents of all diplomatic negotiations to protect national interest.

He also mentioned a third option - going to war, but President Rodrigo Duterte has made it clear the country cannot afford to fight China.

"We don't want a single soldier hurt but we will not give up on our claims, especially on Scarborough," Cayetano said.

Although the Philippines lost control of Scarborough Shoal after the 2012 standoff with China, Cayetano said it is not fully controlled by the Asian giant.

"Scarborough is not 100 percent controlled by China because our fishermen and (our) Coast Guard are there," he said.

Fishermen's plight

Scarborough, also known as Panatag Shoal, is one of the islets and reefs in the South China Sea that lie within the country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The government calls this West Philippine Sea. The July 2016 arbitration ruling said the waters is a traditional fishing ground of Filipinos, Chinese, and Vietnamese fishermen.

China refuses to acknowledge the landmark ruling and continues to claim the South China Sea in its entirety. It even said Filipinos are allowed to fish in Scarborough "out of goodwill." 

In the same media briefing, Cayetano said the Philippines and China have entered into a tentative fishing agreement, but did not elaborate on the details.

Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio on Thursday told CNN Philippines a fishing agreement should discuss is the allowable quantity of fish, as well as a fish tax for the practice to be sustainable.

Some fishermen claim they are being harassed, their catch being seized, by members of the Chinese Coast Guard in Scarborough Shoal.

Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua said these are isolated incidents and erring coast guards will be punished.

Maritime patrols

Filipino, Chinese, and Vietnamese coast guards are meeting in July to discuss issues in patrolling contested waters, Cayetano said Thursday.

He again denied there was an order from the President to stop patrols in the West Philippine Sea, a claim made by opposition lawmaker Gary Alejano.

Cayetano said it was a "very irresponsible" claim that "endangered our security and our standing" in the maritime dispute.

"We can assure our people may (we have) regular patrols," he said.