Duterte U-turns on allowing China to fish

He is accused of waiving nation's rights; critics raise prospect of impeachment

Mr Duterte had previously said in a speech on June 26 that he would allow China to fish in Philippine waters because "we're friends". PHOTO: REUTERS

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte walked back statements that China could fish in Philippine waters after he was accused of waiving his country's rights to its territories, which his critics say exposes him to impeachment.

"The President will not relinquish our sovereign rights over our country's exclusive economic zone," Mr Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement early yesterday.

Mr Duterte had said in a speech on Wednesday night that he would allow China to fish in Philippine waters because "we're friends".

His remarks came as debates raged over the sinking early this month of a small Philippine fishing boat by a steel-hulled Chinese trawler.

The incident happened in waters that the Philippines considers part of its exclusive economic zone, but which China is also claiming.

Mr Duterte had said that even if he wants to, he cannot stop China from fishing in these waters, claiming it will only result in a confrontation.

"If I want to prohibit Chinese fishing, how do I enforce my desire? Even America won't do so out of fear of confrontation there," he added.

Yesterday, Mr Panelo clarified that Mr Duterte had meant that as a "friend", China will not let its fishermen venture inside the Philippines' exclusive waters, "knowing that permitting (that)... will only result in unwanted hostility leading to an armed confrontation".

"We stress assertively that the President will not relinquish, as he is not relinquishing or waiving our sovereign rights over our country's (exclusive waters)," he said.

Critics say in failing to assert the Philippines' rights over its waters, Mr Duterte may be violating the Constitution.

"If you allow other nationalities, not Filipinos, to fish there, that's against the Constitution," Vice-President Leni Robredo, head of the opposition Liberal Party, said yesterday.

Former solicitor-general Florin Hilbay said Mr Duterte's remarks "are erroneous under international and domestic law" while Mr Albert del Rosario, the country's former foreign secretary, said that ignoring provisions of the Constitution that define the Philippines' borders "is really a basis for impeachment... He can be impeached".

Ms Conchita Morales, a former anti-graft court chief, accused Mr Duterte of being "more concerned with the economic benefits that he expects to drag by being friendly and being soft on China".

Mr Duterte has upended the Philippines' foreign policy since taking office in 2016, pivoting towards China as he courted investments for his infrastructure programme and political backing from Beijing.

As for the sinking of the Philippine fishing boat, Mr Duterte said he will wait for the results of a joint probe proposed by China before drawing any more conclusions or taking any action.

However, he was criticised for playing down the sinking as a "little maritime incident", which was how China characterised it.

Mr Panelo said yesterday: "We do not know if Chinese nationals were fishing there at the time of the maritime incident."

He added: "Facts remain unclear if the Chinese vessel was fishing or only exercising their right of innocent passage."

He also said Mr Duterte's "actions are all in accord with his constitutional mandate to serve and protect the Filipino people".

"Maintaining peace and accord among all nations, as well as avoiding knee-jerk and reckless undertakings in disputed areas, are only two of the many carefully studied moves of the President, in obedience to the said constitutional command," added Mr Panelo.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2019, with the headline Duterte U-turns on allowing China to fish. Subscribe