MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte is willing to meet China halfway in the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and allow the Chinese to fish in Philippine waters, his spokesperson said on Tuesday.
The President was asked on Monday night whether Manila would bar Chinese fishermen from Philippine waters after a Filipino boat sank in the South China Sea after being hit by a Chinese trawler that then sailed away, abandoning the boat’s crew in the open sea on the night of June 9.
The President answered that he did not think China would allow its fishermen to be barred from Philippine waters.
“I don’t think China would do that. Why? Because we’re friends. They are of the same view that that should not result in any bloody confrontation,” the President.
In a news briefing on Tuesday, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo tried to explain what the President meant.
“He said they won’t allow it because as far as they are concerned, they have historical right to that area,” Panelo said, referring to the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
“Second, we will allow it because we’re friends. Then let us meet halfway, that is the point of the President,” Panelo said.
Panelo, however, said it didn’t mean Manila was granting Beijing fishing rights in Philippines waters.
“Not really grant. Maybe more of tolerating it. Not necessarily grant. It’s because we’re friends, so we’re giving way to one another,” Panelo said.
Asked whether that was now the administration’s policy in handling the territorial row with China in the South China Sea, Panelo replied: “I will ask him (the President) whether that is a policy statement or not.”
Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Tuesday said the President could not enter into an agreement with China allowing Chinese fishermen access to resources in the West Philippine Sea.
Hontiveros said the Philippines’ friendly ties with China did not allow the President “to surrender our sovereign rights and to disregard our own Constitution and laws amid China’s brazen incursions [on] our territory.”
The Philippine EEZ “is an area where we have exclusive and special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources and other economic activities,” she said.
“The President cannot have a ‘friend zone’ in our own [EEZ],” she added.
Hontiveros said the President’s remarks only worsened the injury suffered by the 22 fishermen who nearly died when their boat, which was anchored near Recto Bank, sank after being hit by the Chinese trawler.
Still no probe
“He has apparently forgotten that it was Chinese fishermen who left 22 Filipinos at the mercy of the sea,” she said.
More than two weeks after the incident, the government has yet to appoint a board of marine inquiry to investigate what Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has described as a “hit-and-run.”
China has proposed a joint inquiry with the Philippines, but Filipino lawmakers oppose the idea, saying only China will benefit from it.