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Philippines to declare marine sanctuary in South China Sea

HONG KONG — Philippine officials said Monday that President Rodrigo Duterte planned to declare a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone at a lagoon within Scarborough Shoal, a reef China seized in 2012.

The announcement followed Duterte’s meeting with President Xi Jinping of China on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru over the weekend.

It was unclear whether the plan had Xi’s backing; the Philippine national security adviser, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., said in a statement Monday that creating the proposed sanctuary was “a unilateral action.”

The plan comes about four months after the Philippines largely won an international arbitration ruling that had challenged China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal. It also comes as Duterte has tried to reset frayed relations with China and has publicly questioned his country’s long-standing ties to the United States.

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Duterte’s communications secretary, Martin Andandar, quoted Xi as having called for a “favorable environment” at Scarborough Shoal, which both countries claim. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts said Monday that it would be difficult to assess the feasibility of Duterte’s plan without further details and that a crucial question was whether China would be involved in the implementation or enforcement of the sanctuary.

Last month Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies and an adviser to the Chinese government, said the government was open to making the lagoon within the shoal into an “environmental protection park.”

“Until we have a management plan, we won’t know,” said Clive Wilkinson, an expert on coral reefs in Australia.

He added that the Philippines probably did not have enough ships to enforce such a ban and that the sanctuary would offer only marginal fisheries protection in the absence of a corresponding fishing ban along the shoal’s outer flanks.

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The South China Sea has some of the world’s most productive fisheries. A 2015 academic study found that the sea had 571 known species of reef corals alone, significantly more than most other reefs.

But the sea is also facing an overfishing crisis, and scientists say that China’s campaign to turn seven disputed reefs into artificial islands and build military facilities on some of them is damaging spawning grounds.

Scientists have long called for the creation of marine conservation areas in disputed parts of the South China Sea, arguing that the areas would help defuse tension over competing territorial claims.