MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Senators in the Philippines have objected to President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to agree to China's suggestion for a joint inquiry into the June 9 ramming and sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese trawler, arguing that it would only undermine the country's control over its waters in the South China Sea.
The incident, which happened near the resource-rich Reed Bank, sparked protests blasting the Duterte administration for siding with China instead of defending the 22-strong Filipino crew of the Gem-Vir 1 who were abandoned in the open sea by the Chinese trawler Yuemaobinyu 42212.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said on Sunday (June 23) that letting China take part in the marine inquiry would only "derogate our jurisdiction and prejudice our claim" in the West Philippine Sea, waters in the heavily disputed South China Sea which the Philippines claims is part of its 370km exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
"We should not allow it. The law is on our side," Mr Drilon, a former justice secretary, said in a statement.
"There are clear violations of international treaties and our local laws committed by the Chinese vessel. A joint investigation will only serve their interest, not ours," he stressed.
WITHIN PHILIPPINE TERRITORY
He added that the collision happened right within the country's territorial waters, a fact that China had already acknowledged.
"There is no need for a joint investigation... All that is left for the government to do is to implement and execute our laws. Sadly, our laws were put in the back seat in favour of China," Mr Drilon said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson agreed, pointing out that the landmark 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which favoured the Philippines, had declared Reed Bank - also known as Recto - as part of the country's EEZ.
"Having said that, allowing a joint investigation with China and a third party may be interpreted as a waiver of our right of ownership of Recto Bank," Mr Lacson said.
The senator had previously deplored the President's downplaying of the sinking of Gem-Vir 1 as just a "little maritime accident", saying it was virtually a "surrender" by the country's leader to a foreign power.
He said that although the government's decision was to protect the Philippines' friendly ties with China, "presumably for political and economic reasons... we should also consider the more important issue of sovereign right and territorial integrity".
"At the very least, that must be clearly addressed during the conduct of the joint investigation," Mr Lacson said.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to China's proposal for a joint inquiry with the help of a "neutral country".
Opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan echoed Mr Drilon's argument that allowing China to have a say in the investigation would disregard the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, which prohibits foreign fishing vessels from the country's territorial waters.
He said the law also explicitly mandated the government to "prosecute local and foreign violators".
Echoing Mr Lacson and Mr Drilon's warnings, Mr Pangilinan said the joint probe may be used by China later on as an "act of abandonment of our claim" in the South China Sea.
"The lives and livelihood of our fishermen, marginalised and poorest of the poor will never be a little incident to us. That's why we believe that a joint investigation between the Philippines and China is disadvantageous to our national interests," he said.
ENFORCE THE LAW
Mr Chel Diokno, founding dean of De La Salle College of Law, also said that under the fisheries code, the government could immediately fine the owners of the Chinese trawler that rammed and sank the Gem-Vir 1.
In a statement on Sunday, he questioned why the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources was not exercising its powers against the owners of the Chinese trawler.
"Why is no one from our government asking the basic question: Why was the Chinese vessel in Philippine territory in the first place? What was it doing there?" he asked.
Regardless of whether the incident was a deliberate ramming or an accidental collision, Mr Diokno said the Chinese vessel should be held accountable for entering Philippine territory and violating Philippine fisheries laws.
Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario suggested on Sunday that Vietnam be the third party in the proposed joint investigation by the Philippines and China.
A Vietnamese boat rescued the Filipino fishermen, hours after their boat sank.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra defended the proposed joint investigation, saying this was not a surrender of the country's sovereignty.
"There is no issue of sovereignty involved in the investigation of this marine or navigation incident at sea. Our EEZ is not part of Philippine territory," he said. "We only have sovereign rights to exploit the natural resources found (in our EEZ)."