At strategic shoal, China asserts power through control and concessions
Far out in the South China Sea, where dark blue meets bright turquoise, a miles-long row of fishing boats anchor near Scarborough Shoal, backed by a small armada of coastguard projecting China's power in Asia's most disputed waters. China still calls the shots at the prime fishing spot and has boosted its fleet there, nine months after an international panel ruled its blockade of the lagoon was illegal. Beijing rejected that ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated China's claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
But the presence of Philippine boats dotted between Chinese vessels shows a degree of compliance with the ruling. Overtures from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is negotiating billions of dollars worth of loans, investments and trade deals with China, may have helped. China stopped repelling Filipino boats in October and allowed them to fish on the edges of the rocky outcrop, 200 km (124 miles) from the Philippines. Now it appears to be easing restrictions further.
Reuters journalists last week entered the Scarborough Shoal itself - the first access by foreign media since China seized it in 2012 - and witnessed dozens of small boats shuttling day and night into the lagoon to capitalize on its rich fish stocks. "It's good that we're now allowed inside, it helps me to support my family's needs," said Vicente Palawan, treading water inside the lagoon, a dive mask on his head and fishing spear in hand.