President Rodrigo Duterte has promised to stop China from fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea within his term.
“Short of expressly advocating a call to arms, there are those who say that we should stand up and stop those who fish in our economic zone. Of course, we will do, in due time,” Duterte said during his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday.
The President addressed criticisms on his 2016 deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, wherein he allowed China to fish in Recto Bank, in exchange of Filipinos fishermen being allowed in Scarborough Shoal. Both areas are being claimed by Manila and Beijing.
The Recto Bank is the site of the controversial incident where a Filipino fishing boat was hit and sunk by a Chinese vessel last June 9. Meanwhile, the Philippines lost Scarborough Shoal in a 2012 standoff with China, prompting Manila to file a case for international arbitration which it won.
An international arbitral tribunal in July 2016 invalidated Beijing’s sweeping nine-dash line claim to almost the entire South China Sea and recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights over some areas in its EEZ, including Recto Bank. It did not decide on which country has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, but said China violated Filipino fishermen’s traditional fishing rights when they blocked them from entering the resource-rich area. China rejects the ruling.
Marine experts and some government officials have said the President’s move violates the Constitution which states that only Filipinos should use and enjoy the country’s resources.
Duterte, however, explained he can enter into a fishing agreement with other states, and that parts of the West Philippine Sea are considered traditional fishing grounds. “They have been there fishing since time immemorial,” he said.
Duterte earlier brought the fishing deal up as he discussed the Recto Bank incident, where a Chinese crew abandoned all 22 fishermen who floated in the open seas for hours before being rescued by a Vietnamese vessel. Duterte said he called it a “maritime incident,” because that’s a legal term.
The Duterte administration has been criticized for allegedly lawyering for China, whose friendship the President has nurtured.
Duterte stressed he is not giving up the country’s sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, where China has built artifical islands, blocked Filipinos from fishing, and interfered in oil exploratuon activities.
“The West Philippine Sea is ours. No ifs and buts,” Duterte said. But he added the government has to “temper” its actions “with the times and reality we face today.”
The President again recalled that Xi had told him there would be “trouble” if the Philippines would pursue plans to drill for oil in the West Philippine Sea. Malacañang has said that since then, he kept on saying he could not go to war against the East Asian giant for fear of losing Filipino lives.
“The avoidance of armed conflict and protection of our territorial waters and natural resources compel us to perform a delicate balancing act,” Duterte said.