Duterte can be impeached for 'compromise' on Chinese fishing in Philippine EEZ, expert says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 27) — A constitutional expert sees two grounds for impeachment in President Rodrigo Duterte's deal with Beijing allowing the Chinese to fish in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.

"Either culpable violation (of the Constitution) or betrayal of public trust," Christian Monsod, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, told CNN Philippines' Newsroom Ngayon on Thursday.

He said the Constitution is clear that only Filipinos can enjoy the country's EEZ, and "it is not within (Duterte's) power to compromise it."

"That's violative of the Constitution," Monsod said.

"He cannot compromise the provision of the Constitution. He cannot. That's his duty – to preserve and defend it, and the Constitution says 'yung ating EEZ is exclusive to Filipinos so how can he compromise on that?" he added.

Article 12, Section 2 of the Constitution says, "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."

Malacañang on Thursday dared critics to file an impeachment complaint against the President on this issue, but stressed it would not be proper because he did not do anything unconstitutional.

"Kung naniniwala sila na meron siyang ginawang impeachable ground, e di mag-file (If they believe there is an impeachable ground, then file)," Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a media briefing. Duterte already faced an impeachment complaint in 2017 over drug war killings, alleged corruption, and supposed failure to defend the country's sovereign rights and territorial sea claims.

"Ano bang unconstitutional sa napag-usapan nila (Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping) na 'wag magkagulo sa isang lugar (What is unconstitutional in what Duterte and Xi agreed upon to avoid tension)?" Panelo added.

Panelo gave conflicting statements during the press briefing, even saying that Duterte never said yes to Chinese fishing in the Philippines' EEZ – after criticisms that what the President did was illegal.

The compromise

In a speech on Wednesday, Duterte said he and Xi earlier agreed that Beijing will no longer block Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal, if Manila would allow Chinese fishermen to fish in Recto Bank, also known as Reed Bank. Both areas in the South China Sea are being claimed by Manila and Beijing.

“Will you allow the Chinese to fish? Of course. ‘Yan ang pinag-usapan namin noon, kaya tayong nag-uusap. And that was we were allowed to fish again. It was a mutual agreement. Sige bigayan tayo. Fish ka doon, fish ako dito,” Duterte said

[Translation: Will you allow the Chinese to fish? Of course. That’s what we talked about before, that’s why we talked. And that was why we were allowed to fish again. It was a mutual agreement. Let’s give and take. You can fish here, and I can fish there.]

READ: Duterte claims earlier deal with Xi allows China to fish in Recto Bank

The Philippines lost control of Scarborough after a 2012 standoff with China, prompting Manila to file a case for international arbitration. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague largely recognized the country's sovereign rights in areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. The government calls areas it occupies and claims in the disputed waters as West Philippine Sea. This includes Recto Bank, the site of the controversial incident wherein a Filipino fishing boat was hit and sank by a Chinese vessel last June 9.

China won't fish in PH EEZ?

Duterte drew flak as he hogged headlines for supposedly saying China will continue to fish in the Philippines' EEZ. When asked if the country could prevent Chinese fishermen from plying their trade in the country's EEZ, the President said last Monday, " I don’t think that China would do that. Why? Because we’re friends."

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio dismissed it as unconstitutional, but the Palace on Thursday said the statement was "misconstrued," as he only meant that China would never intrude in our EEZ.

"After watching the President's interview and reading its transcript, I have evaluated that it appears that what the President meant was China would not allow their nationals from fishing in our EEZ since they treat us as their friends, knowing that permitting their fishermen to fish in our EEZ would only result in an unwanted hostility leading to an armed confrontation," Panelo said.

At the same time, he reiterated that Duterte and Xi made a fishing agreement to share some areas in the South China Sea.

When asked to state the country's policy on whether Chinese fishermen are allowed in the country's EEZ or not, Panelo refused to give any categorical answer, saying he would have to ask the President. But he did say that the government "will prosecute" if the Chinese vessel in the Reed Bank incident was found to be fishing.

War not the answer

Duterte on Wednesday also stressed that enforcing a ban on Chinese fishing in Philippine waters would cause trouble.

Kung i-prohibit ko, how do I enforce? Takot nga ang Amerika. Ayaw nga mag-confront. Tapos ako pa ang ipusta nila? Gusto talaga nila mapasubo ako,” he said.

[Translation: If I prohibit, how do I enforce. America is scared. It does not want to confront. And then they will have me face it? They really want me to receive the blow.]

Whenever there are issues in the contested waters, Duterte would say he could not go to war with China for fear of losing Filipinos' lives.

"But there are many many means in order to uphold our Constitution," Monsod said. "He has to look for ways to uphold it, even negotiations, international arbitration or whatever it is."