Senators oppose joint probe of boat sinking at Recto Bank
MANILA, Philippines — Senators on Sunday objected to President Duterte’s decision to agree to China’s suggestion for a joint inquiry into the June 9 ramming and sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese trawler, arguing that it would only undermine the country’s control over its waters in the South China Sea.
The incident, which happened near the resource-rich Recto (Reed) Bank, sparked protests blasting the Duterte administration for siding with China instead of defending the 22-strong Filipino crew of the Gem-Ver 1 who were abandoned in the open sea by the Chinese trawler.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said letting China take part in the marine inquiry would only “derogate our jurisdiction and prejudice our claim” in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the heavily disputed South China Sea.
“We should not allow it. The law is on our side,” Drilon, a former justice secretary, said in a statement.
“There are clear violations of international treaties and our local laws committed by the Chinese vessel. A joint investigation will only serve their interest, not ours,” he stressed.
Within PH territory
Besides, he said the collision happened right within the country’s territorial waters, a fact that China had already acknowledged.
“There is no need for a joint investigation … All that is left for the government to do is to implement and execute our laws. Sadly, our laws were put in the back seat in favor of China, ” Drilon said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson agreed, pointing out that the landmark 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which favored the Philippines, had declared Recto Bank part of the country’s EEZ “and therefore cannot be claimed by China.”
“Having said that, allowing a joint investigation with China and a third party may be interpreted as a waiver of our right of ownership of Recto Bank,” Lacson said.
The senator had previously deplored the President’s playing down the sinking of Gem-Ver 1 as just a “little maritime accident,” saying it was virtually a “surrender” of the country’s leader to a foreign power.
More important issue
He said that although the government’s decision to protect the Philippines’ friendly ties with China “presumably for political and economic reasons … we should also consider the more important issue of sovereign right and territorial integrity.”
“At the very least, that must be clearly addressed during the conduct of the joint investigation,” Lacson said.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to China’s proposal for a joint inquiry with the help of a “neutral country.”
Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan echoed Drilon’s argument that allowing China to have a say in the investigation would disregard Republic Act (RA) No. 8550, or the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, which prohibits foreign fishing vessels from the country’s territorial waters.
Pangilinan said the law also explicitly mandated the government to “prosecute local and foreign violators.”
“Part also of the government’s mandate is to address foreign illegal entrants in our waters,” he said.
“The Recto Bank incident is already a shoo-in to these provisions,” he added.
As Lacson and Drilon had warned, he said the joint probe may be used by China later on as an “act of abandonment of our claim” in the South China Sea.
Said Pangilinan: “The lives and livelihood of our fishermen, marginalized and poorest of the poor will never be a little incident to us. That’s why we believe that a joint investigation between the Philippines and China is disadvantageous to our national interests.”
“It will never be a fair investigation when one is oppressed and the other is the oppressor; when one is the victim and the other is the perpetrator,” he added.
Under RA 10654, which amended the fisheries code, Drilon said the government may demand the Chinese trawler that hit Gem-Ver 1 to pay up to $1.2 million in fines.
Enforce the law
He said the law stated that “the entry of any foreign fishing vessel in Philippine waters constitutes a prima facie presumption that the vessel is engaged in fishing in Philippine waters.”
“They could contest the facts surrounding the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat by that Chinese vessel. But the fact that that Chinese vessel illegally encroached upon Philippine waters is uncontestable. And for that, the government can penalize them,” Drilon said.
“The Congress provided more teeth to the [law] precisely to prevent abuses of our Philippine waters, preserve our marine and aquatic resources, and protect the livelihood of our [fishermen]. We call on the executive to implement the law,” he said.
Chel Diokno, founding dean of De La Salle College of Law, also said that under the fisheries code, the government could immediately fine the owners of the Chinese trawler that rammed and sank the Gem-Ver 1.
Why, then, isn’t the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources exercising its powers against the owners of the Chinese trawler, Diokno asked in a statement on Sunday.
“Why is no one from our government asking the basic question: Why was the Chinese vessel in Philippine territory in the first place? What was it doing there?” Diokno asked.
Regardless of whether the incident was a deliberate ramming or an accidental collision, Diokno said the Chinese vessel should be held accountable for entering Philippine territory and violating Philippine fisheries laws.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario suggested on Sunday that Vietnam be the third party in the proposed joint investigation by the Philippines and China.
A Vietnamese boat rescued the Filipino fishermen, hours after their boat sank.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra defended the proposed joint investigation, saying this was not a surrender of the country’s sovereignty.
Contradicting the opinion of Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Guevarra said sovereignty was not a question in the proposed joint investigation.
“There is no issue of sovereignty involved in the investigation of this marine or navigation incident at sea. Our EEZ is not part of Philippine territory,” Guevarra said.
“We only have sovereign rights to exploit the natural resources found [in our EEZ],” he said. —With reports from DJ Yap and Dona Z. Pazzibugan
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