Have the Chinese left disputed Scarborough Shoal? Ten key points

The US says it's verifying if Beijing has left the Philippines-claimed Scarborough shoal.

China to hold military drills amid South China Sea tensions
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea Reuters

Philippines defence minister said on Friday Chinese vessels have left the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea and that Filipino fishermen can return to their traditional fishing grounds.

Chinese officials did not confirm the move, nor did they deny it. The US has said it's trying to verify if Beijing has left the Philippines-claimed atolls for the local fishermen.

Here are ten key points so far:

1. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said fishermen now have uninterrupted access to the shoal for the first time in four years, after the Chinese left. "Since three days ago there are no longer Chinese ships, coast guard or navy, in the Scarborough area ... If the Chinese ships have left, then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area," the minister said.

2. Confusion prevailed after the minister's statement as the military had said earlier some Chinese vessels were in the area. Local media also reported the Chinese vessels' continued presence around the cluster of rocks known as Scarborough shoal, citing fishermen in the area.

3. The official response from China's foreign ministry was non-committal. Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the two countries "were able to work together on issues regarding the South China Sea and appropriately resolve disputes."

4. The US welcomed the putative move saying it augurs well for the resolution of the dispute if the development is confirmed. "We hope it's certainly not a temporary measure ... We'd like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving towards an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough reef that would be in accordance with the July 12 arbitral decision," US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

5. The development has come after a much hyped visit of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to China, which also received global eyeballs for the harangues he unleashed on the US. Duterte made deliberate overtures to China and disparaged the decades-old alliance with the US.

6. The Scarborough Shoal is at the centre of the dispute between Manila and Beijing. The Philippines took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration over China's forceful possession of the shoal in 2012. On July 12, the court dismissed China's claim that it has sovereignty over the whole of South China Sea, in an apparent victory for the Philippines. Beijing brushed aside the court's ruling and repeated its claim over the area.

7. The International court, however said no single country has absolute rights over the Shoal, which lies within Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. While China calls the shoal as Huangyan Island, Manila calls it Panatag.

8. The disputed shoal is located 100 km from the cost of Philippines, while from the nearest Chinese shore in southern Hainan, it's 500 km away. The Chinese took over the shoal in 2012 and forced the Philippines to release Chinese poachers who had been arrested from the area. The Chinese never left the shoal since then and the occupation set off a tense maritime standoff between the two countries.

9. Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei also have claims to a clutch of islands, shoals, rocky outcrops, atolls and sandbanks in the sprawling south China sea.

10. The US and its Southeast Asian allies say China is using the shoal as well as many other artificial islands in the disputed seas for military buildup. The US too has US military facilities in Southeast Asia -- Philippines and Thailand. It also has stationed its Poseidon sub-hunters and electronic warfare platforms in Malaysia and Singapore.