In denying the existence of a verbal fishing agreement between President Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, the Palace spokesman Harry Roque found himself in the unenviable position of contradicting his own boss—and trying to rewrite history.
“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 the West Philippine Sea despite the diplomatic protests and strongly worded statements of Philippine government officials,” Roque said on April 23.
He said the suggestion by former Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio that this agreement had emboldened Chinese intruders to stay in Philippine waters was “without basis and quite simply conjecture.”
Those with particularly short memories might wonder where the former associate justice got the notion of a verbal agreement between the two leaders, but those who follow current events will know that the information came from none other than President Duterte himself.
In a speech in June 2019, Mr. Duterte said he would allow Chinese nationals to fish within Philippine waters because that was his agreement with Xi so that the Chinese, who illegally control Scarborough Shoal, would allow Filipinos to fish there.
A few days after the President’s speech, then Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo said the verbal fishing agreement to allow Chinese nationals to fish within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) was legally binding.
“Even in the law, even if it’s verbal, it’s valid and binding as long as there is mutual consent from the two parties. That’s why it’s an agreement,” Panelo, who is presidential chief legal counsel, said in Filipino.
Referring to the 2016 legal victory the Philippines won against China before a UN tribunal, Panelo said in a July 2019 press briefing: “[T]he President … believes that aggressively enforcing the arbitral award will only precipitate or trigger an armed conflict that could escalate into continuing bloody encounters detrimental to the national interest. Hence, he has resorted to diplomatic negotiations that may reap the desired windfall from the arbitral ruling. If you remember, before in the Scarborough [Shoal], we could not fish; our fishermen were being driven away but after that agreement with the president, they’re not being molested.”
How, we wonder, can Mr. Roque explain how a non-existent agreement can be considered legally binding by the President’s chief legal counsel.
Where, too, we wonder, does he find the gumption to try and rewrite history that is documented in the President’s own words?
The greatest asset that a Palace spokesman has is credibility. That is something that cannot be gained by playing a shell game where the truth is flashed for a moment, then shuffled and hidden from the public.
The President’s verbal fishing agreement with Xi? Now you see it, now you don’t. Much like the tough talk about asserting our rights against the Chinese, which quickly disappears as a result of the President’s “careful, calibrated, and calculated’ foreign policy. Or the Palace’s credibility, which vanishes with each callous, craven, and clumsy attempt to rewrite history.