Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the collision near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea is still being investigated by Philippine and Chinese authorities.
Edd Gumban
‘No need to invoke MDT yet with US’
Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - June 18, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — It is premature to claim that the hitting of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel can be considered an attack that would trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States, Malacañang said yesterday.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the collision near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea is still being investigated by Philippine and Chinese authorities.

“We still do not know,” Panelo told a press briefing when asked whether the incident qualifies as an attack.

Panelo, however, said the Philippines is ready to comply with the provisions of the MDT, a 1951 agreement that allows Manila and Washington to develop their individual and collective capacity to resist external armed attacks.

“Whatever is in accordance with the agreement, we will do that,” the spokesman said.

Last Friday, US Ambassador Sung Kim told “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News that attacks in the South China Sea that are initiated by militia or armed civilians and sanctioned by foreign governments may trigger the MDT.

“(US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) made clear that because the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, under the treaty itself, any armed attack on Filipino vessels, Filipino aircraft will trigger our obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Kim said.

“I think that’s about as clear as you can get without getting into millions of possible hypothetical situations,” he added.

Kim noted that the MDT covers any armed external attack against Filipino forces, including public vessels.

Last week, Malacañang described as “barbaric” and “inhuman” the abandonment of the 22 Filipino fishermen whose boat sank after it was rammed by a Chinese ship near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea.

In his statement, Panelo called the abandonment a “crystal-clear violation of maritime protocols as well as an infringement of internationally accepted practice of assisting a vessel in distress.”

The spokesman, however, was more cautious at yesterday’s press briefing, parrying reporters’ questions by repeatedly stating that it is too early to make conclusions about the incident.

Panelo noted that China has issued a statement denying that the Chinese ship had abandoned the Filipino fishermen after the collision.

“We are waiting for the final results of the investigation being conducted by the Chinese government, and that applies to us also; because… we are also conducting our own investigations. The problem is a lot of people are ‘hot’ and cannot wait,” he said.

“That’s why the President is not saying anything... We lawyers wait for the facts to come in – all the facts,” he added.

While he previously called the abandonment of Filipino fishermen as a “crystal clear” violation of protocols, Panelo described as “premature” Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s statement that the Chinese ship had violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“Premature because we do not know yet the facts. Initially, we knew they were abandoned and then they’re (China) disclaiming it... We do not know yet. Let’s wait,” Panelo said.

Meanwhile, he described as “speculation” Vice President Leni Robredo’s statement that the crew of the Chinese ship should stand trial in the Philippines.

“That’s another speculation. We still do not know. It’s one of the things that are premature. We do not know yet. So, let’s wait for the facts considering that our initial facts as relayed to us are being disputed,” he said.

The spokesman also advised those calling for the downgrade of Philippine-China ties to avoid jumping to conclusions.

“All of us are just observers. We still do not know because the facts are not yet in, all the facts,” he said.

Asked how investigators would determine the true version of the incident, Panelo replied: “You know, we have what we call a judge to determine. In one case, there are two versions, there is one arbiter or judge that will determine who is telling the truth.”

Pressed on who would serve as judge on the Recto Bank incident, he said: “We still do not know. We will wait for the official findings of both sides, then we decide.”

Panelo, however, clarified that the Palace is not doubting the accounts of the fishermen, saying it just wants “to know the facts since there is a contrary claim.”

Asked if his previous statement on the Recto Bank collision was not based on facts, Panelo replied: “That’s the report to us by our Filipino crew. So, we have to initially believe them, until proven otherwise. But since somebody disputes it, let’s see if their contrary claim is true. Until such time, our stand remains.”

Meanwhile, senators expressed disappointment over the actions of some government officials who they said should be among the first to condemn the ramming of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel.

Sen. Joel Villanueva said he remains puzzled by the actions of the Chinese fishing crew “who rammed a Filipino fishing vessel and left behind our Filipino fisherfolk for dead” as it was expected and normal for people to extend a helping hand in seeing another human being in distress.

“The same can be said about the reaction of our officials who we expected to protect and promote the welfare of Filipinos, being their representatives in government. Let us always bear in mind that we serve our people, and being workers in government, their wellbeing is our top priority,” Villanueva said.

The senator also cautioned officials from dismissing the value of the international community in sensitive diplomatic issues such as this incident. He thanked Vietnam for rescuing the Filipino fishermen who were thrown into the water because of the collision.

Villanueva did not name the officials but apparently was referring to Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, who allegedly tried to downplay the incident.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros described Cusi’s comments as “the height of insensitivity to our poor fisherfolk, ignorance of facts and even bordering on the treacherous.”

“It becomes completely understandable, then, why Junel Insigne, captain of the F/B Gem-Vir 1, backed out of the meeting with President Duterte. With public officials like Secretary Cusi, who needs enemies? – With Paolo Romero

MUTUAL DEFENSE TREATY PHILIPPINES AND UNITED STATES
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