Palace: No Duterte-Xi fishing pact; Sino ‘swarm’ remains
Malacañang on Friday denied that there was a “verbal fishing agreement” between President Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping just days after Manila filed two more diplomatic protests against the continued presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
The denial also comes after former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio pointed to a statement by Duterte himself that he had a “verbal agreement” with Xi in 2016 to allow the Chinese to fish in Philippine waters.
“There is no truth to the speculation of a purported ‘verbal fishing agreement’ between President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and President Xi Jin Ping, nor that Chinese vessels were encouraged to stay in West Philippine Sea despite the diplomatic protests and strongly worded statements of Philippine government officials,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.
“This is without basis and is quite simply, conjecture,” he said, adding that such an agreement could only be done through a treaty, which “must be in writing.”
“No such treaty or agreement exists between the Philippines and China,” Roque said.
Duterte would not allow any state to conduct “commercial” fishing in the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but would permit “subsistence” fishing, he added.
In a statement on Friday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it had lodged two diplomatic protests with Beijing over the refusal of scores of Chinese vessels to leave the West Philippine Sea.
They were the latest in a series of formal protests from Manila since early March when more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels swarmed Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, which is well within the country’s EEZ in the West Philippine Sea.
“The continued swarming and threatening presence of the Chinese vessels creates an atmosphere of instability and is a blatant disregard of the commitments by China to promote peace and stability in the region,” the DFA said.
“The presence of these vessels blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”
According to the DFA, the two diplomatic notes were filed on Wednesday “in protest of the continued deployment, lingering presence and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine maritime zones.”
The notes were also a reminder to China that Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc, Pag-asa Islands, Parola, Kota Islands, Chigua and Burgos Reefs were all “integral parts of the Philippines,” it said.
The DFA insisted that China respect the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 “final and binding” arbitral ruling that recognized the Philippines’ EEZ.
The ruling invalidated China’s sweeping claims to virtually the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. Beijing has ignored the ruling.
In his column in the Inquirer on Thursday, Carpio pointed to the President’s own admission that he had a “verbal agreement” in 2016 with the Chinese leader, which Duterte first disclosed following the ramming by a steel-hulled Chinese fishing vessel of the Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver 1 in June 2019.
Carpio said this was the “more sinister reason why Chinese fishing vessels roam en masse” in the West Philippine Sea.
“The President must come clean on the terms of his ‘verbal agreement’ with the Chinese,” wrote the former Supreme Court justice, who led the Philippine legal panel which won the arbitral case.
“The Chinese, using huge steel-hulled trawlers, are taking fish from Philippine EEZ at the expense of Filipino fishermen who only use wooden fishing boats with outriggers. The Filipino fishermen are complaining of drastically declining fish catch in the WPS (West Philippine Sea). The Philippines is now importing ‘galunggong’ from China, the same fish that Chinese fishermen scoop in the WPS,” he said.
On June 24, 2019, Duterte mentioned his deal with Xi to explain why he could not bar the Chinese from fishing in the West Philippine Sea.
He said that agreement allowed Filipinos to fish again at Panatag Shoal, which China blockaded after seizing control of it in 2012.
In a speech in Malacañang three days later, Duterte again cited the agreement.
160 vessels remain
“They asked, ‘Will you allow the Chinese to fish?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ That was what we have been discussing before, that’s why we’re talking. And that’s why we’re allowed to fish again,” he said.
“It was a mutual agreement. Let’s give way to each other. You fish there, I fish here,” Duterte added.
Later, then presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, who is also the President’s legal adviser, explained that the verbal deal between Duterte and the Chinese leader was legally binding even if it was not written down.
“Even in law, even it’s verbal, it’s still valid and binding, as long as there is mutual consent between the two parties. That’s why it’s an agreement,” Panelo said.
The DFA statement said 160 Chinese vessels were still illegally staying in Philippine waters, particularly at the Kalayaan Island Group and Panatag as of April 20.
The US-based think tank, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti), said the Chinese vessels had been at Julian Felipe “since at least February 2020.”
It cited satellite images from Planet Labs which showed “signficant numbers” of Chinese ships at the reef, much earlier than what was reported by the US research company Simularity, which recorded their presence at the reef in November last year.
According to Amti, the Chinese vessels “never really disappeared,” but only bounced between Julian Felipe and other parts of Pagkakaisa (Union) Banks and Reefs, which were already occupied by China.
It said some of the Chinese vessels anchored at Julian Felipe operated out of the same base as the boat that rammed and sank Gem-Ver 1.
Amti identified at least 14 ships at the reef from photos and videos taken by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).
Of the six Chinese vessels that were seen moored side by side at Julian Felipe Reef during the March 7 patrols of the PCG, five were identified by Amti—Yuemaobinyu 42881, 42882, 42883, 42885 and 42886. It was Yuemaobinyu 42212 that hit Gem-Ver 1.
—WITH REPORTS FROM MARLON RAMOS AND DEXTER CABALZA INQ
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