Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte could be impeached for appearing to give Chinese fishing boats a green light to enter South China Sea waters that are internationally recognized as lying within Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), analysts and officials said Wednesday.
Duterte, an ally of China’s president, suggested earlier this week that due to a need to preserve friendly relations with Beijing, it would be hard for him to stop the Chinese from fishing in the 200-mile zone, which is reserved solely for Filipinos under the Philippine constitution.
"I don’t think that China would do that [stop fishing in the EEZ]. Why? Because we’re friends," Duterte said Monday in response to a journalist's question, local news reports said.
The Philippine leader made the remark amid a national uproar over the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a larger Chinese vessel on June 9 off Recto Reef, which is well within Manila’s territory as spelled out by international law.
Analysts have interpreted Duterte’s comment as an admission that he would not stand up to Beijing, which has been the Philippines’ main economic benefactor since the president took office three years ago. Duterte’s pronouncement, however, could land him into deep legal trouble, according to at least one observer.
“It would be a ground for impeachment. It would be a violation of the constitution and a betrayal of the public’s trust. But of course, it’s a game of numbers,” said Ramon Beleno III, who heads the political science and history department at Ateneo De Davao University.
“Such statements do not help. It’s like giving the Chinese confidence. We can’t control our seas but it’s different when you allow them for the sake of friendship,” he added.
The Philippine Constitution clearly states that the government shall protect the country’s marine wealth in its waters, territorial sea and exclusive economic zone, as well as reserve its use for Filipinos.
Beijing claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the maritime region.
The Philippine chief executive could be impeached should government agencies implement Duterte’s pronouncement, a maritime law expert said.
“If you allow Chinese fishers there, that’s dereliction of duty. The duty of the chief executive is to implement and enforce the law,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
“[H]e can face an impeachment complaint,” Batongbacal added.
And in the opinion of Philippine Supreme Court Judge Antonio Carpio, allowing Chinese fishermen to ply their trade inside the Philippines’ waters is patently illegal.
“The Philippines has exclusive sovereign right to exploit all the fish, oil, gas and other mineral resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone. This sovereign right belongs to the Filipino people, and no government official can waive this sovereign right of the Filipino people without their consent,” Carpio said.
Under the Constitution, Carpio pointed out that “national territory” includes “other submarine areas” over which the Philippines has “sovereignty or jurisdiction.”
On Wednesday, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo countered that under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a government has the right to grant permission to other countries.
“We get benefits from them. The President’s point may be for us to give back a little to them,” Panelo said, adding that the country should trust Duterte because “all his moves are based on the provisions of the constitution to protect and serve Filipinos.”
“He’s balancing the interests of the state as well as against potential dangerous consequence that can happen if we commit a mistake,” he added.
Duterte played down the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat as an ordinary “maritime incident,” as he moved to deescalate tensions with China. The sinking of the boat, in which the Chinese ship sailed off after allegedly ramming into the anchored Philippine boat, left 22 Filipino fishermen stranded at sea until a Vietnamese vessel picked them up and ferried them to safety.
“Well, I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. So I am sorry if that is how they feel. But they know that that area is claimed by both. For China, it happened within their jurisdiction. For us (it happened) within our jurisdiction. We have two conflicting claims of ownership,” Duterte said when asked about his message to the fishermen. His comments were contained in official transcripts released by the presidential palace.
NGO urges stricter monitoring of fisheries
Meanwhile, an international NGO working on ocean conservation called on the Philippine government to implement stricter controls in monitoring its fishing grounds.
Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Vice President of Oceana, said Wednesday that declining fish stocks were already at “crisis proportions” and the government needed to protect the livelihood of small fisher folk.
“It is truly sad that plunder in our ocean continues due to greed of commercial fishing operators, whether Filipino, Chinese or otherwise,” she said, noting that the June 9 incident between the Chinese and Filipino fishing boats cast a spotlight on the urgent need to equip vessels with tracking mechanisms.
Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.