The government is not waiving the country’s sovereign rights and will enforce the law against illegal fishing by foreigners, the Palace said Thursday after President Rodrigo Duterte drew heavy fire for saying he would continue to allow Chinese fishermen to operate in the country’s exclusive economic zone.
In a Palace briefing, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo again blamed the media for giving “a false interpretation” of the President’s remarks, after legal and maritime experts pointed out that allowing the Chinese to exploit the country’s resources in the EEZ would violate the Constitution.
While Panelo had defended the President’s remarks a day before, he shifted gears Thursday, saying that Duterte meant that China would not allow its nationals to fish in the Philippine EEZ because they treat Filipinos as friends and that doing so would result in “unwanted hostility leading to armed confrontation.”
President Duterte previously told the media on Monday night that given the friendly ties with China, he could not ban Chinese fishermen from the vicinity of Recto Bank.
Several hours after that, Panelo backed Duterte’s pronouncement, saying the Chinese government will not allow their fishermen to be banned.
“He said they [China] will not allow it, but as far as they’re concerned, they have a historical right to that. Number two, we will allow it because we’re friends. We will meet half-way. That seems his point,” Panelo said Tuesday, June 25.
But Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said allowing Chinese fishermen to exploit resources in the country’s EEZ would violate the Constitution, which reserves those resources for the exclusive use by Filipinos.
Carpio also brought up the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations, which ruled with finality that the Philippines has jurisdiction over its EEZ in the West Philippine Sea, including the West Bank.
Maritime law expert professor Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines argued that the mere presence of foreign vessels in the country’s EEZ is already a crime.
Former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert Del Rosario added that Duterte could be impeached for his failure to secure the country’s territorial waters.
“There are several questions that need to be asked: Is this to be viewed as a successful Chinese invasion without a shot being fired? Is this now a PH policy? Is this not a clear violation of our Constitution that mandates our President and our military to defend what is ours?” Del Rosario said in a statement.
“To what extent will this embolden the Chinese militia vessels to further bully our fishermen? And what is to happen to our poor fishermen? How close are we now toward also giving up our exclusive rights to oil and gas within our EEZ? When will we stop giving our northern neighbor primacy over that of our own people?” he added.
In the face of this criticism, Duterte called Carpio “stupid.”
Speaking to members of the Presidential Security Group on Wednesday evening, Duterte said he wasn’t impressed with Carpio’s skills even before.
“You know Justice Carpio, you’re so stupid… That is why you’re still there,” he said, apparently referring to his failure to become chief justice.
But Panelo insisted that the President was misunderstood and that he had committed no impeachable offense.
“From our point of view, our interpretation was different. That’s why many reacted that way. ‘Look, that’s unconstitutional.’ Their reactions to the wrong premise were correct,” Panelo said in a Palace press briefing.
“We stress assertively that the President will not relinquish, as he is not relinquishing or waiving our sovereign rights over our country’s EEZ in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
He then challenged critics to file impeachment complaints against Duterte, expressing confidence that Duterte did not commit any impeachable offense over his stance on China fishing within Philippine waters.
Panelo’s clarification Thursday contradicted Duterte’s remarks Wednesday night.
In a speech, he said Chinese vessels are allowed to fish in the country’s EEZ and that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping entered into a “mutual agreement” in 2016 following an issue over the Scarborough Shoal.
“They asked me, ‘Will you allow the Chinese to fish.’ I said, ‘Of course.’” the President said.
“That’s what we discussed before... We were allowed to fish again. It was a mutual agreement. Let’s give and take, you fish there, I’ll fish here,” he continued.
“Now, they said, ‘You have to ban China. Prohibit it.’ If I were to prohibit [them], how do I enforce my desire? America is afraid, they don’t want to confront [China],” he added.
Duterte further said opposition senators and critics, who denounced his statement just want to create trouble by pressuring him to bar China from the country’s EEZ.
“These opposition senators, they really want trouble... They really want to force me,” he added, saying he will not risk the lives of 110 million Filipinos.
Panelo on Thursday declined to give a categorical statement on Duterte’s general policy concerning the exploitation of the resources within the EEZ, saying he would talk to the President again.
Carpio, meanwhile, brushed aside the President’s tirade against him.
“Those personal attacks are not worth commenting [on],” Carpio said in a text message.
But he added: “I welcome the clarification of... Panelo that the President never meant to allow the Chinese to fish with Philippine EEZ.”
Three aspirants for an upcoming vacancy in the Supreme Court to be left by the retirement of Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, however, rebutted Carpio’s opinion.
During public interview by the Judicial and Bar Council Wednesday, Court of Appeals Associate Justices Mario Lopez and Eduardo Peralta Jr. and Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Alex Quiroz all believed that the reported decision of the President to allow Chinese fishermen to trawl in Recto Bank may be legally justified.
Lopez explained that the President has the discretion to allow China to operate within the Philippines’ EEZ.
“That is a wisdom that can be determined by the executive in so far as entering into an agreement with another country. I would even think… that this may be a political issue because these foreign policies are entered into by the President and it is something that is conferred to the Chief Executive as part of his function as the leader of the state and the Court cannot possibly question the wisdom of the executive of whether or not to enter into an agreement with another country,” he told the JBC.
But Lopez said such an arrangement could be declared unconstitutional if it would not benefit the country.
Peralta agreed that the President has the discretion to allow the Chinese fishermen in Recto Bank.
Quiroz, for his part, said Duterte’s move in favor of China was not a ground for impeachment.
“I don’t think it will constitute ground for impeachment because the betrayal of public trust must be coupled with grave offenses such as treason, bribery and graft and corruption, and grave violation of the Constitution,” he said.
Former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said any agreement to allow foreigners into the EEZ would need the approval of the people.
“The exclusive economic zone of the Philippines gives rights of the Philippines to have exclusive sovereignty over it. Since it is exclusive, you cannot allow other countries to fish in these areas which are covered by this economic zone without the consent of the people,” Morales told ANC’s Headstart.
Morales said Congress, and not the President alone, should grant permission to fish in Philippine waters.
In the same program, Del Rosario said allowing Chinese fishermen into the Philippines’ EEZ would only embolden the “bully.” With Macon Ramos-Araneta
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