Cabinet secretaries counter Panelo on Duterte-Xi fishing deal

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 3) — At least two Cabinet secretaries differed from Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo on the supposed verbal agreement between President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping to allow the Chinese to fish in Recto Bank, saying this agreement is not a national policy.

“In diplomatic parlance, verbal agreement, if it’s not formalized and in writing, then it’s just an agreement to come into an agreement,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Alexei Nograles told CNN Philippines’ The Source on Wednesday.

In a separate TV interview, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin Jr. said the verbal agreement between Duterte and Xi could not be enforced.

“You need a document to prove an agreement, that’s just the way it is,” Locsin said.

The pronouncements of Nograles and Locsin are different from the earlier statements of Panelo, who also serves as chief presidential legal counsel. Panelo said that the verbal deal between Duterte and Xi is legally binding.

Duterte has revealed that Xi agreed to allow Filipino fishermen into the Scarborough Shoal — the subject of a standoff in 2012 — as long as Chinese fishermen get to fish in Recto Bank, known internationally as Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile EEZ.

The fishing rights were agreed upon by the two leaders during Duterte's state visit to China in 2016, but it was only publicized in June, following the ramming of a Chinese vessel into a Filipino fishing boat at Recto Bank, which caused the FIlipino boat to sink, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen floating for hours at sea.

However, Panelo told CNN Philippines on Tuesday that the agreement between Duterte and Xi had been announced before the incident.

READ: Duterte on sinking of Filipino boat: 'Wala namang namatay e'

“I said that because of that talk, the fishermen in Scarborough were allowed to fish, when before, they were shooed away. There has been some trouble when fishermen went fishing there. Because of that agreement, that [was] resolved,” Panelo told CNN Philippines’ New Day.

But Locsin, who took over the Foreign Affairs department in 2018 following the departure of its former chiefs Perfecto Yasay Jr. and Alan Peter Cayetano, said he was clueless about the supposed deal.

“Which goes to show that this was not written down; otherwise I would be briefed upon taking the position,” Locsin said.

Chinese not allowed?

Nograles said that despite this deal, the Philippines is still not abandoning its exclusive rights over its EEZ, adding that foreign fishermen spotted in those waters may be apprehended by the Coast Guard. This was also echoed by Locsin.

However, Nograles said that “adjustments between good neighbors” might be made through bilateral talks over supposedly overlapping territorial claims over the waters in the West Philippine Sea, a part of the South China Sea claimed by Manila.

Kasi siyempre ... they might also say we both consider that as also part of our exclusive economic zone or whatever they want to call it,” Nograles said.

He added that the country may allow “surplus” fish to be taken by other countries. Locsin also said this, adding that Duterte may have been “given the impression that there is a level of beyond allowable catch” prompting him to enter into the fishing deal.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague had already invalidated in 2016 Beijing’s sweeping claims over virtually the entire South China Sea based on “historic rights.” The international tribunal also said that the Asian giant violated Manila’s sovereign rights in its EEZ.

The Duterte administration has refused to invoke this ruling, out of fear that it may trigger a war with China. Beijing has refused to acknowledge the international court’s decision.

Legal experts, including Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, have said that Duterte’s allowing Chinese fishermen into Philippine waters is unconstitutional. Some have also warned that this may lead to the President’s impeachment.

But Duterte’s allies and even an opposition senator believe that this is far from possible.

Manipis. Sobrang nipis. [It’s thin. It's too thin.] It’s nothing if that’s the basis for the impeachment,” Nograles said.