Chinese coast guard members, wearing black caps and orange life vests, confront Philippine fishermen off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in September 2015. (Renato Etac/Associated Press)

Filipino fisherman were able to fish this week in waters near the disputed Scarborough Shoal without being chased away by Chinese vessels, the Philippines said Friday, suggesting a potential deal with China over the disputed South China Sea. 

The news comes about a week after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a high-profile visit to Beijing, praising his Chinese hosts while calling for a “separation” from his longtime ally, the United States.   

In the run-up to Duterte’s visit, there were rumors that Beijing and Manila were close to a deal on fishing rights at Scarborough, which China has controlled since 2012. However, the trip ended without any agreement announced.

Earlier this week, though, Duterte hinted that Philippine fisherman “may” be able to return. “We’ll just wait for a few more days,” he said.

Philippine fishermen told reporters from ABS-CBN News, a local TV network, that they were allowed near the shoal on Tuesday and fished there for three days without interference. A report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper said eight groups of fisherman were able to fish at the shoal on Wednesday.

Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella appeared to confirm those reports Friday, telling journalists in Manila that the fishermen were operating at Scarborough Shoal without harassment. “All I can say is that at this stage, it has been observed that there are no longer any Chinese coast guards in the area,” he said, according to Philippine news reports. 

At a briefing later, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that “both sides are conducting official conversations on the issue.”

It is not clear whether the apparent return is part of a deal between Manila and Beijing — none has been reported. Even a provisional or informal arrangement, if confirmed, would signal a major shift in an issue of consequence for the Philippines, China and the United States. 

Scarborough is a flash point in the South China Sea conflict. The shoal, which the Chinese call Huangyan and the Filipinos call Panatag, is a triangular chain of reefs and rocks that lies about 120 miles off the coast of Luzon, not far from Subic Bay, the former U.S. naval base that still hosts regular visits from U.S. ships. 

China seized control of the shoal in 2012. Since then, Philippine boats approaching the shoal have been routinely chased away by the Chinese coast guard, rammed or hit with a water cannon — a source of anger for many Filipinos.

The standoff between Manila and Beijing came to a head this summer when a European court issued a sweeping rebuke of China’s claims to most of the South China Sea, including Scarborough.

But rather than press China on the ruling, the Philippines’ new president surprised many by playing down — though not outright dismissing — the ruling. Duterte has said he will not relinquish territory but is willing to talk to China about ways to defuse tension and get economic ties back on track.

A deal on fishing, if confirmed, would be a domestic political victory. 

Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said he would not be surprised to see a return of Philippine boats.

“Duterte requested this concession during his trip to Beijing last week, and if China had refused his request, he would have had egg all over his face and nothing to show for his pro-China stance,” he said. 

An agreement on fishing would allow China and the Philippines to press ahead with rapprochement, potentially driving a wedge deeper into U.S.-Philippine relations. 

It would also send a message to other countries in Southeast Asia that have clashed with China on maritime issues, Storey said: “Don’t challenge our claims, and in return, we will be magnanimous and allow you to share the resources that rightfully belong to us.”

Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at Manila’s De La Salle University, said a change in the status quo at Scarborough Shoal would ease tension between China and the Philippines in the short term, though the long-term picture looks less clear.

China remains unlikely to compromise on the key question — sovereignty — meaning that the dispute persists. “It’s too early to say whether this will stand over time,” he said.