Duterte's 4th SONA seen as 'lecture' on constitutionality of Chinese fishing in EEZ

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 9) — President Rodrigo Duterte might talk at length about his controversial policy allowing Chinese fishing in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) during his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo in a media briefing on Tuesday said Duterte "will not defend" his deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but will "educate people who think that what he did was unconstitutional."

"He will lecture on the constitutionality of what he has done," Panelo added.

READ: Duterte's stance on EEZ: Filipinos' lives more important than property

Duterte has been criticized for recently divulging his 2016 agreement with Xi that Beijing would no longer block Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal, if Manila would allow Chinese fishermen to fish in Recto Bank, also known as Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines' EEZ. Both areas are being claimed by Manila and Beijing.

The President in a media interview on Monday night insisted he was "in keeping with the law" in allowing Chinese fishing, and stressed he might just prove it in his upcoming SONA on July 22. The SONA is the President's annual message to the Filipinos which highlights what he has accomplished so far and what he plans to do in the remaining years of his term.

During last year's SONA, Duterte said the country's "improved relationship with China does not mean we will waiver in our commitment to defend our interest in the West Philippine Sea." However, he did not elaborate on how he plans to protect the country's sovereign rights in areas the Philippines claims and occupies in the South China Sea – to the dismay of critics.

READ: Carpio: Duterte's SONA should have discussed how gov't will protect rights over West PH Sea 

Maritime experts and government officials, including Vice President Leni Robredo and Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, said Duterte violated the Constitution in letting Chinese fishermen exploit the country's EEZ. They cited Article 12, Section 7 of the Constitution which 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."

The Fisheries Code also states it is unlawful for any foreigner to fish or operate any fishing vessel in Philippine waters. This, and even the mere entry of foreign fishing vessels into Philippine waters, can be penalized by a fine of $100,000.

Christian Monsod, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, said Duterte may be impeached for culpable violation of the Constitution or betrayal of public trust, noting that the President has no power to "compromise" the law of the land. Malacañang has dared critics to file an impeachment complaint, confident that the President did not do anything unconstitutional.

Duterte brought up his deal with Xi as he discussed the Recto Bank incident, where a Chinese vessel hit and sank a Filipino fishing boat last June 9. The Chinese crew abandoned all 22 fishermen who floated in the open seas for hours before being rescued by a Vietnamese vessel. Duterte on Monday insisted it was a "very small" maritime incident even as investigators from the Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority classified it as a “Very Serious Marine Casualty” ("casualty" is a maritime term for "incident").

Panelo on Tuesday said it would be best if the Chinese government would impose sanctions on the Chinese crew. "If we file a case against them baka matagalan tayo kasi first we have to identify kung sinong idedemand natin (who will we sue)," Panelo said.

A month after the incident, authorities have yet to know the names of the Chinese crew involved. It is also not certain if the Chinese vessel was manned by fishermen or militia.