Protesters hold a rally in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila yesterday coinciding with the anniversary of the arbitral ruling on the South China Sea.
‘Verbal agreement could be binding if declared at SONA’
Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - July 13, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The supposed verbal fishing agreement made by President Duterte with China will become binding if he mentions it in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 22, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned yesterday.

“The moment he makes that statement in the SONA, it is a final confirmation that that verbal agreement is now a legal agreement binding on the Philippines and China,” Carpio said at a forum hosted by Stratbase ADR.

Discussed at the forum was the ruling issued exactly three years ago yesterday by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, which invalidated China’s expansive claim in the South China Sea and reaffirmed the Philippines’ maritime entitlements. The forum theme was, “Three Years After Our Nation’s Arbitral Victory: An Environmental Crisis.”

The court ruling was on a case filed in 2013 against Beijing by the Aquino administration. Carpio was part of the legal team that secured the favorable ruling by the UN-backed tribunal.  Beijing has vowed not to comply with the ruling. As part of his appeasement of China, Duterte opted to set aside the landmark ruling.

“We are terribly at the losing end of that agreement because we are opening the entire West Philippine Sea to China’s fishing fleet. It is just lopsided,” Carpio said.

He said a verbal agreement or any agreement that allows the Chinese to fish in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is a violation of the Constitution.

“We are weakening the country’s position by admitting China can fish in our EEZ,” Carpio pointed out.

In one of his recent speeches, Duterte said that in his coming SONA – his fourth – he would educate the Filipinos on the constitutionality of his verbal agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“It’s still a verbal agreement so we can still get out of that, but if the President will mention it in the SONA, confirm, it becomes binding on us and that means China can fish in an area at least 59 times larger than Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal,” Carpio said.

“We are allowed to fish in Scarborough Shoal. They are allowed to fish in Reed (Recto) Bank but it’s lopsided because we are only allowed to fish outside the lagoon,” he added.

Duterte revealed the existence of such an agreement to clarify an earlier controversial statement that China could not be stopped from fishing in the Philippines’ EEZ.

Although Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had made it clear the verbal agreement is not a policy and thus cannot be enforced, its being mentioned in the SONA would mean confirmation.

“But if the President will confirm it in the SONA, I mean we cannot get out of that anymore. So we’re bound by that; we have to honor that,” Carpio said. “So the President will have to say that there is no such agreement because if there is, we’re bound by that,” he added.

If the deal is mentioned in the SONA, “the effect is we have committed to China to allow them to fish and China has the largest fishing fleet in the world and their fishing fleet roam all over the oceans and seas of the world,” the SC magistrate said.

“It will take them a very short time to deplete the Reed Bank or even the West Philippine Sea. Every Filipino should beg the President not to confirm that because we will become bound by that,” he said.

At the same forum, former foreign affairs chief Albert del Rosario emphasized the constitutional duty of the President and the military to secure the integrity of Philippine territory.

“The problem we face today is that the award we won has been shelved, resulting in more unlawful acts of intimidation and bullying in the South China Sea,” he said.

“In fact, the President and the military are constitutionally mandated to secure the integrity of our national territory, which includes our EEZ and the West Philippine Sea,” Del Rosario said.

Del Rosario recalled the President saying in a media interview that there would be “no bargaining of Philippine territories since it is not mine.”

On Duterte’s decision to shelve the arbitral court ruling, Del Rosario said “it falls on us ordinary Filipinos to find creative and viable means to enforce the award, so we may be able to defend and preserve our national patrimony – including our West Philippine Sea, not only for ourselves, but for our children and those yet unborn.”

Enforce ruling

Opposition senators, for their part, said the government must exert all effort to defend the historic ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the Philippines was victorious in filing the case before the tribunal but it appears “we’re giving it to the one we defeated.”

“Since the Philippines pivoted toward China, our giant neighbor became more aggressive in its stance in the West Philippine Sea,” Pangilinan said, adding the ramming of a Filipino fishing boat in Recto Bank was the latest act of bullying by China.

“Before this pivot, we, like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, had been trying to protect our waters so that our fishermen can freely fish there and feed us,” he said.

The Philippines, he said, had stood up to the bullying by filing diplomatic protests, summoning Chinese ambassadors, arresting, prosecuting, fining and eventually expelling Chinese and other foreign poachers, and yet there has not been any war.

In any case, the cause of the country’s fishermen and every Filipino in general is worth fighting for, he said.

He said the Recto Bank alone is estimated to hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to a 2013 report from the United States Energy Information Administration.

He also cited a report from the University of the Philippines Marine Institute that fisheries production of both municipal and EEZ waters of the country has declined over the past decades, and is predicted to drop further by 25 percent to 50 percent in a few years’ time.

“If we are able to harness the oil and gas and protect our marine life in the West Philippine Sea, it would mean cheaper power and electricity, as well as seafood for our consumers and more income and food for our fisherfolk,” he said.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros said for three years the Duterte administration has defaulted on the country’s victory in The Hague.

“Instead of defending our territory and standing by our fisherfolk, it continues to bow to China,” Hontiveros said.

The administration’s brand of selective sovereignty is on full display, she said.

“Despite our historic triumph at the arbitral ruling, President Duterte has refused to find ways to stop the harassment of our fisherfolk and the plunder and destruction of our natural resources. Instead, it kowtows to the Chinese government’s agenda in the region,” she said. – With Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude, Reuters

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