POSTSCRIPT / August 8, 2019 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Duterte, Xi to plug holes in fishing deal?

BEFORE the Duterte-Xi “verbal” fishing deal gets the Philippine president into trouble with the Constitution, he will have a chance to plug the loopholes in the agreement when he meets China’s paramount leader in Beijing late this month.

The deal that allows Chinese fleets to fish in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone has been widely criticized, although (or because) the terms of the agreement supposedly forged in 2016 have not been disclosed despite its negative impact on the country’s food security.

As we write this (Wednesday noon), Malacañang has not announced the agenda of the meeting with China’s Xi Jinping. It will be Duterte’s fifth visit to Beijing since he became president in 2016 and the second this year.

The first news floats said the President wanted to watch the Philippine team play in the FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball) games that reel off Aug. 31 in China. There are also the usual speculations that the 74-year-old Duterte has to periodically go to China for medical reasons.

We think an FIBA game is not important enough a reason for a presidential trip. Duterte aide Senator Bong Go should not insult us by making it appear that his boss’ trip revolves around the FIBA games in China.

Neither do we see any need for Duterte’s going to China for medical treatment. If indeed he needs it now and then (which we doubt), the necessary specialists, equipment and drugs could be simply brought to Manila or Davao.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Tuesday that Duterte planned to take up with Xi the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the recent Recto Bank incident, joint exploration of maritime resources and other bilateral issues.

Knowing Xi’s firm rejection of the arbitral ruling invalidating Beijing’s nine-dash line claim over 88 percent of the South China Sea (including the West Philippine Sea), it seems unlikely that Duterte would muster courage to raise it and risk again being threatened with “trouble.”

As to the Recto Bank allision (a nautical term we learned from Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr., thank you!) that saw a Filipino fishing boat being hit by a Chinese vessel that then left its 22 crew adrift in the brine, parallel investigations and other processes are already ongoing.

By simply reciting the pending issues, Panelo showed that the Palace was not ready to announce the official Duterte-Xi agenda – leaving the matter open to speculation. We have here another case of an information near-vacuum wildly sucking in rumors.

Our hunch is that Duterte wants to talk with Xi about plugging the legal loopholes in their “verbal” agreement before its hazy terms, entered into without consultation with Filipino stakeholders, expose him to possible charges of selling out to China, a culpable violation of the Constitution.

Philippine waters are overfished. Fishery harvest has been dwindling and fish imports from China are now No. 1 (24 percent of total). Where is reciprocity? Can Filipinos cross SCS to fish in China? Yet Duterte has opened our EEZ to the Chinese, legalizing their poaching.

Food security is jeopardized by a lopsided fishing deal. What are the harvesting limits, the protocol for inspection and taxation, conservation and provisions for protecting breeding areas and endangered species? See:

 Disclose the terms of fishing deal

THE WOBBLY foundation of the fishing deal was exposed days ago when Duterte’s anointed Senator Francis Tolentino stood on July 29 to defend it – only to end up showing the administration’s lack of basic study on the matter when he was interpellated by opposition Senator Franklin Drilon.

By characterizing the agreement as “verbal,” the President probably meant “oral” — meaning spoken and not written. He or his spokesmen should clarify this point. “Verbal” means with the use of words. In this sense, a written contract, agreement or treaty is also verbal.

The administration, with its gigantic information apparatus, finds it hard to defend the fishing agreement because the terms (such as on reciprocity, conservation, restrictions, taxation, waters covered, etc.) are not written out.

It is what our neighbors in the barangay would refer to as “usapan lang,” or what diplomats might describe as an agreement “in principle.” It is nonetheless binding if entered into freely in good faith and in comformity with the law.

The big problem is that nobody seems to have seen the Piece of Paper bearing the text of the alleged contract, plus the signatures, seal and such details that make it official.

We now have the sorry spectacle of myopic men in the Malacañang menagerie defending an important executive agreement that they have not seen. We hope it does not happen that the two parties themselves – Duterte and Xi – have not seen it!

The coming China sojourn of Duterte will be worth the time and money being poured into it if he returns waving a copy (amended?) of the fishing agreement – hopefully silencing the skeptics already reeling from threats of being charged with sedition and such high crimes.

Pardon another aside, but we non-lawyers are curious: Is planning to oust Duterte the same as plotting to overthrow the government? Is Duterte the government?

This reminds us of “L’état, c’est moi!” (I am the State!) attributed to Louis XIV, king of France from 1643 until his death in 1715. Judging from Duterte’s pronouncements, he similarly seems to think he is the government, when he is only the president.

He says “my government” when he should be saying “my administration.” Administrations come and go, but the government stays. He also says “my soldiers” as if the AFP is his private Praetorian army. It’s delusional.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 8, 2019)

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