By Martin Sadongdong
A written document allowing Chinese fishermen to fish in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) is no longer needed because President Duterte’s verbal agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping is already enough, the country’s top Defense official said on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana echoed President Duterte’s statement during his fourth State of the Nation Address on Monday that the West Philippine Sea and some areas around the basin of the South China Sea (SCS) have “always been a traditional fishing ground.”
The West Philippine Sea lies within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines in the South China Sea.
“I don’t think there is a work or drafting of agreement to allow other countries to fish there but the President said that area has always been a traditional fishing ground of so many people around the region, around the South China Sea basin. Hindi na siguro kailangan pa ng agreement dyan (A [written] agreement might not be needed anymore),” Lorenzana said.
“Itong (The) Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese even Koreans, and Filipinos, Malaysians and Indonesians – they can also fish because they have always been there,” he added.
But the Defense Chief stressed that the West Philippine Sea “is ours” and the Philippine government can permit other countries to fish in the area, which in this case, was done by the President through a verbal agreement with China’s Xi.
“Atin ‘yan pero (It is ours but) we can allow them to fish,” he stated.
On Tuesday, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said that the Senate should either ratify or repudiate the verbal agreement between Duterte and Xi.
“That agreement, if you allow China to fish, that requires a treaty or international agreement. That requires the concurrence of the Senate,” Carpio said in a television interview.
But Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the Upper Chamber cannot act on the verbal fishing agreement between President Duterte and Chinese President Xi unless it was formally passed onto the chamber.
“How can we ratify something that has not been transmitted to the Senate?” Sotto asked in a text message to reporters.
The Senate chief explained that the Upper Chamber cannot ratify or repudiate treaties motu propio. He pointed out that the Executive department has to submit such agreements before the Senate can act on them.
“How can we act on something we don’t have?” he repeated.
During his SONA last Monday, Duterte reiterated that he had a verbal agreement with Xi to allow Filipinos and Chinese to fish in the disputed waters.
“Kaya sinabi ko (I said), ‘Let us do this mutually.’ Of course, when Xi says, ‘I will fish,’ who can prevent him? And sabi ko naman (Then I said), ‘We will fish because we claim it’ and sabi ko (I said), ‘Please allow because…’ Before that, they were driving away our fishermen. ‘Di ba inaabog nila (They were driving away them, right)? Kaya sabi ko (So I said), ‘Do not drive them away because the Filipinos are of the belief that they are also – they claim it’,” Duterte had said.
“And besides, I was invoking ‘yung (the) traditional fishing rights,” he added.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in favor of the Philippines and invalidated the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” in claiming a major portion of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.
It designated the Panatag or Scarborough Shoal as a traditional fishing ground where Filipinos, Chinese, and other nearby nationalities could fish.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales noted that the traditional fishing ground designated by the arbitral ruling did not cover the entire exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
They also maintained that the West Philippine Sea “belongs exclusively to the Filipinos.”
“Unless the Constitution is amended, no public official has the authority to grant foreigners fishing rights in our EEZ,” Del Rosario and Carpio-Morales said in a joint statement.
Under Article 12, Section 2 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, it states that, “The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.”
As for Lorenzana, he said what matters most is that the President “is not giving up our sovereign rights” in the West Philippine Sea, as his giving permission to other countries to fish in the disputed waters meant the Philippines owns it. (With a report from Vanne Terrazola)