CABINET Secretary Karlo Alexei B. Nograles called a 2016 verbal agreement on fishing rights at Reed Bank between President Rodrigo R. Duterte and China’s Xi Jinping a preliminary step to a more formalized deal, as members of the government aired conflicting positions on the validity of the arrangement.
Mr. Nograles also acknowledged Wednesday that the filing of impeachment charges over the fishing rights granted to China is not in itself a crime, but added that resorting to such a procedure might be interpreted as a “threat” if the prospect of impeachment is used to force President Rodrigo R. Duterte to take a certain course of action.
Speaking to media at the Palace Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Nograles said individuals who “threaten” the President with impeachment may be committing a crime.
The prospect of impeachment loomed in the wake of the South China Sea boat collision that sank a Mindoro-based fishing boat. The Chinese boat then allegedly left the 22 Filipino crew in the water without rendering assistance. It also prompted Mr. Duterte to threaten those seeking his impeachment with arrest.
The boat incident raised the question of fishing rights at Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but is claimed by China along with much of the South China Sea. The President has since claimed that he had a 2016 “verbal agreement” with Mr. Xi allowing for both countries’ fishermen to operate in the area.
The unwritten deal has elicited conflicting interpretations from members of Mr. Duterte’s Cabinet, with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. calling the deal unenforceable and not yet official policy, while the President’s Spokesman Salvador S. Panelo said it is binding.
Mr. Nograles noted the contradictions between the two officials’ positions but added that the verbal deal may represent “an agreement to come to an agreement.”
He said: “If there were verbal (agreements) between the two heads of state… unless formalized, written down and stated therein provision by provision the terms of reference, the terms and conditions, then this is an agreement to come to an agreement. Without the specified… provisions, then it’s just an agreement to come to an agreement. So it’s an agreement to talk, an agreement to enter into bilateral talks, an agreement to enter into communication, to clarify things, to continue bilateral meetings…”
The blowback from the boat collision raised the prospect of impeachment, which prompted Mr. Nograles to characterize the potential filing of charge as an instance of “threatening” the President to force him “to do something.”
On Monday, Mr. Panelo said in a briefing: “Kahit na verbal eh valid and binding iyon (Even if it’s verbal, the agreement is valid and binding) basta mayroong mutual consent ang dalawang partido (as long as there is mutual consent from both parties). Kaya nga agreement eh (That’s why it’s called an agreement).”
On Wednesday, Mr. Locsin said on ANC’s Headstart program: “The verbal agreement cannot be enforced on us, it’s verbal… You need a document to prove an agreement. That’s the way it is.”
Without a definitive arrangement on the matter, Mr. Nograles said the Philippines “will continue to enforce” the law to protect its right to exploit resources in the EEZ.
“We will enforce what is in the law. So if it’s for us to protect according to our fisheries code, the fisheries law, then we will enforce the law…. We will continue to protect it,” he said.
He added that agreements that amount to a treaty have “to pass through the Senate.” — Arjay L. Balinbin