Duterte counts on China’s word PH fishermen won’t be harmed
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte wants China’s “continuing assurance” that Filipinos will not be harmed while fishing in the heavily disputed South China Sea, Malacañang said on Tuesday.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement that the President spoke about protection for Filipino fishermen during a Cabinet meeting on Monday night.
A Philippine fishing boat sank near Recto Bank, in the South China Sea, on the night of June 9 after being hit by a Chinese trawler that then sailed away, abandoning the boat’s crew in the open sea.
Panelo said the President also ordered the Cabinet to raise the incident in bilateral meetings with China.
It was unclear whether Panelo was referring to the bilateral consultations between Manila and Beijing, where the two countries discuss developments in their territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
No third party ‘OK’
He said the President was “OK” with China’s preference of not involving a third party in the proposed joint investigation of the Recto Bank incident.
“He was OK with that, as long as this issue is resolved, and we agree on things,” Panelo said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Tuesday said China’s rejection of a third party in the investigation did not come as a surprise.
Allowing a third party would be inconsistent with China’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, he said. China claims Recto Bank as part of its territory.
“If they agree to a third-party arbiter, it would derogate on their claim that their jurisdiction extends to the nine-dash line,” Drilon said, referring to the demarcation line drawn by China on maps to indicate its territory in the South China Sea.
Recto Bank is a resource-rich tablemount in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
It remains unknown why the Chinese trawler was at Recto Bank when it hit the anchored Philippine fishing boat.
Deal with Xi
The Palace initially condemned the Chinese vessel’s abandonment of the Filipino fishermen, but the President later played down the incident as just a “little maritime incident” and said the Philippines should not go to war over it.
President Duterte also cited a deal he made with Chinese President Xi Jinping that allowed the Chinese to fish in Philippine waters in exchange for Filipinos being allowed to fish at Panatag Shoal, a traditional fishing ground located off Zambales province that China seized in 2012 after a two-month standoff between Chinese and Philippine coast guards.
The President’s critics have criticized his handling of the incident, citing the provision in the Constitution that requires the state to protect Philippine territory and reserves the right to use resources in the country’s seas for Filipinos.
Panelo said detractors were “milking” the President’s stance on the Recto Bank incident “[t]hat’s why we have to put closure to this.”
They are “making a big issue out of nothing,” he said.
Panelo reiterated the Palace’s stance that critics should not read constitutional provisions in isolation but relate them to the government’s primary duty of protecting and serving the people.
He said the provision on the protection of the country’s natural resources and marine wealth did not only “bestow upon the Filipino people favorable preferences as regards the nation’s wealth.”
“It is actually designed to safeguard their very existence and survival, because in the hierarchy of rights, the right to life takes precedence over the right to property,” he said.
PH legal victory
Panelo added: “A provision in the Constitution, and for that matter, any law, cannot be read in isolation but always in conjunction with the other provisions, to give life, and not to kill the very rationale of the Constitution.”
He stressed that the President was not surrendering the country’s sovereignty by not aggressively pursuing the 2016 arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea.
“We reiterate that we remain steadfast in maintaining our claims with respect to our territory and exclusive economic zones. This is based on the constitutional command … [to] the President to serve and to protect the Filipino people,” Panelo said.
He said the President did not mean to belittle the Constitution when he said last week that the exclusivity clause was “thoughtless and senseless.”
The implication is that China will never respect the Philippine Constitution in relation to its claim over Philippine waters and islands in the South China Sea, he said. —With a report from Leila B. Salaverria
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.