OPINION: Did no one tell Panelo that ‘Reed Bank’ has no shoreline since it is completely under water?



On national TV and radio, presidential spokesman Sal Panelo tried to belittle the story of the 22 Filipino fishermen whose boat was rammed and sunk without warning by a Chinese ship, which then fled the scene.

Panelo told Ted Failon during a live interview over DZMM and Channel 26 that certain “facts” on the ramming incident had to be straightened out. One “fact” that Panelo claimed needed correction was the statement of the fishermen that they were anchored near the Reed Bank. He said this was an argument being used by those who say the ramming was intentional, because the boat was anchored “sa may shoreline” of the Reed Bank.

The lawyer Panelo in effect told Failon that was not true. He said it turned out that the fishing boat F/B Gem-Ver 1 was anchored “in the middle of the sea”, not near “the shoreline” of the Reed Bank.

Here is the transcript of what Panelo said:

“All the while ang akala natin noong sila naka-anchor sila o naka-stationary, e nandoon sila sa may shoreline. Malapit doon sa shore. Hindi ba? Pag nag-angchor ka malapit ka sa shore.

“Pero yun pala hindi naman. Nandoon sila sa lugar, kung saan meron lang area na puwedeng ilaglag nila yung anchor nila at puwede silang pumirme doon.

“In other words nasa gitna pa rin sila ng dagat.

“Kaya hindi ba – sabi ng iba – paano naman hindi sinadya, kung naka-anchor sila, e di binangga talaga yon.

“E yun pala nasa gitna sila ng dagat pa rin.

“Yun ang mga facts.

“Kaya sabi ni presidente, kaya kailangang malaman natin talaga

The implication of Panelo’s statement is very serious. He seems to be insinuating that the fishermen were lying about being anchored “near” the Reed Bank. Therefore they must be lying about other things, such as the ramming. So, why believe them? It’s a cheap trial lawyer tactic: faced with serious testimony, try to discredit the witness.

First of all, the Reed Bank has no shore or shoreline to speak of because it is a feature that is COMPLETELY UNDER WATER.

Malacañang Palace has a P1.25 billion budget for “Confidential Expenses” and “Intelligence Expenses” – and no one told Panelo nor the President, Rodrigo Duterte, that the Reed Bank is a completely submerged feature under the South China Sea?

This fact alone raises the question why the Chinese fishing vessel was there in the first place.

Let’s consider other FACTS.

And for this, I asked my brother-in-law, Dr. Alfredo C. Robles, Jr., who recently published “The South China Sea arbitration: Understanding the Awards and Debating with China.”

This is a scholarly and peer-reviewed book that was also published at the same time by De La Salle University Publishing House in the Philippines and by Sussex Academic Press in the United Kingdom.

How far is the undersea area called the Reed Bank from the coast of Palawan? Only 85 nautical miles.

How far is the Reed Bank from the coast of Hainan Island which is the nearest shoreline facing the South China Sea? Very far—595 nautical miles.

He explained that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a country’s sovereignty extends up to 12 nautical miles from its shoreline. He told me that a country’s “Exclusive Economic Zone—where it has exclusive rights to fish and extract oil, gas and minerals – extends up to 200 miles from its shoreline; in addition, a country has the right to explore and exploit the natural resources of its continental shelf, which comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas beyond the territorial sea and extends to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline.”

But what is a “nautical mile”? A footnote on page 12 of his book explains that one nautical mile is equivalent to 1,852 meters or 6,076.115 feet.

He also emphasized that the Reed Bank, which is completely under water and only 85 nautical miles from Palawan, “is on the Philippines’ continental shelf”.

So what if the Reed Bank is “is on the Philippines’ continental shelf”?

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gives the coastal state (the Philippines) “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring [the continental shelf] and exploiting its natural resources” (see Article 77).

Not only that. These sovereign rights “are exclusive in the sense that if the coastal State does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources, no one may undertake these activities without the express consent of the coastal State,” UNCLOS states.

UNCLOS has a very complicated formula for calculating the extent of a coastal state’s continental shelf (see Article 76). But roughly, it states that the continental shelf extends to “a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.”

Given that the Reed Bank is only 85 nautical miles from Palawan and is clearly part of the Philippine continental shelf, how can China claim the Reed Bank as part of its territory or its territorial sea when:

a) The Reed Bank is not even 200 nautical miles from China’s nearest shoreline, Hainan, but 595 nautical miles away from that island (Hainan); and

b) The Reed Bank is totally submerged?

My brother-in-law replied: “The basis of its claim to the Reed Bank is that it is within the Nine-Dash Line.”

But the Nine-Dash Line was ruled in 2016 as completely bogus or without basis by an Arbitral Tribunal International constituted under Annex VII of UNCLOS, he pointed out.

China has not explained why it is claiming an underwater feature called the Reed Bank except in relation to the “illegal Nine-Dash Line,” he said.

For me, it is from the official narrative of events issued by the Chinese Embassy in Manila that we find out that the Chinese fishing vessel was poaching near the Reed Bank and not exercising its right to innocent passage.

There is no question that under the Philippine Fisheries Code, the trespasser was at fault.

So why are Panelo and other Duterte officials so very eager to distort the first-hand accounts of the Filipino fishermen who nearly drowned when their boat was sliced in half?

Because, I think, they are eager to sign a deal this year that would enable China to extract oil and gas on the Philippine continental shelf and in the Philippine EEZ.

If that happens, China won’t even need the Nine-Dash Line. Because the Duterte government would have legalized its stay in the West Philippine Sea under Philippine and international law.

Which is why Panelo’s photo, dressed as a mandarin or Chinese official, is so very apt.

Last February, during the Lunar New Year celebrations, Panelo played dress-up, all in fun of course. But this time, with the Reed Bank incident, his fun photo has taken on another meaning.