What could be worse than having that “verbal agreement” that allows China to fish in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ)? Talking about it in the President’s State of the Nation Address (Sona).
That’s the warning Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has aired, as he pointed out the grave danger that could arise if President Duterte talks about the alleged fishing deal during his Sona on July 22, as he said he would.
“The moment he makes that statement in the Sona, it is a final confirmation that the verbal agreement is now a legal agreement binding on the Philippines and China. We cannot get out of it anymore,” Carpio said.
“It is still a verbal agreement so we can still get out of that, but if the President will mention it in the Sona, it becomes binding on us and that means China can fish in an area at least 59 times larger than Scarborough Shoal,” he added.
The scenario painted by Carpio is a grim one, for it virtually gives China an all-access pass to the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
To begin with, the supposed deal Mr. Duterte made with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016 appears to be totally lopsided. In exchange for not blocking Filipino fishermen from the Philippine-owned Scarborough, or Panatag Shoal, the Chinese would be allowed to fish farther, on Reed Bank, a rich fishing ground within the country’s 370-kilometer EEZ.
Such deal is a win-win for China, and a total loss for the Philippines. With this agreement, Mr. Duterte would be single-handedly giving away Philippine ownership of Panatag Shoal, which China seized in 2012 after a two-month maritime standoff but the claim for which the Philippines has not relinquished.
It was this island-grabbing that prompted the Philippine government to seek redress against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. In 2016, the arbitral tribunal upheld the Philippines’ maritime rights and invalidated China’s sweeping claim over the South China Sea — a legal victory that, however, the Duterte administration shelved in favor of its foreign policy pivot to China.
Now, the so-called Xi-Duterte “verbal agreement” threatens to compound the Philippines’ disadvantage. As Carpio pointed out, Filipinos are only allowed to fish outside the lagoon, thus making us “terribly at the losing end of that agreement, because we are opening the entire WPS to China’s fishing fleet.”
“You know China has the largest fishing fleet in the world. Their fishing fleet looms all over the oceans and seas all over the world. It will take them a very short time to deplete the Reed Bank or even the WPS. You can see what’s [already] happening. Fish stock [in the area] has gone down,” Carpio said.
If officially enforced, the deal would harm thousands of Filipino fishermen and their families and communities, who have for generations depended on the bounty of the area for their livelihood.
As it is, they are now at the mercy of the formidable Chinese, with their far superior fishing boats and destructive fishing methods, which have led to the widespread destruction of reefs and the marine environment in the area.
But not even the recent violence at Reed Bank, when a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Filipino fishing boat and left 22 Filipino fishermen floating in the sea, can seemingly shake the Duterte administration’s sweetheart relations with Beijing.
Mr. Duterte would be committing even bigger transgressions against his own people should he make rash actions to give China the license to reap what exclusively belongs to the Filipinos in their EEZ.
Where are his more rational-thinking Cabinet members who should provide wise counsel and inform him about the folly of transforming this blob of a deal—the details of which the Senate, for one, has yet to scrutinize and approve, as the Constitution requires—into official policy by giving it a place in his Sona?
The Sona is the Chief Executive’s annual address to the Filipino nation, where he formally spells out the policies and road map of his government.
As the July 22 address will mark the second half of his term, Mr. Duterte would do well to revisit his oath, listen to the majority of Filipinos who want him to protect the country’s rights in the WPS, and heed the counsel of well-meaning and patriotic voices even if they are not within his preferred circle.
Every Filipino, in fact, should beg the President not to confirm the deal in his Sona, said Carpio. “I think we should all tell everybody to tell the President, ‘Please don’t say it.’”
Yes — Mr. President, please don’t.