MANILA — Malacañang denied on Friday a supposed 2-year-old verbal agreement between President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, which an official said allowed China to fish in Philippine waters.
In 2019, then Malacañang spokesman Salvador Panelo said the two leaders' agreement for China to fish in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone was "legally binding and enforceable."
But current Palace spokesman Harry Roque said "there is no truth" to the supposed deal. He also denied that Chinese vessels were encouraged to stay in the West Philippine Sea.
"This is without basis and is quite simply conjecture," he said in a statement.
Under Philippine law, a fishing agreement "can only be done through a treaty" or "an international agreement concluded between States in written form," Roque said.
"No such treaty or agreement exists between the Philippines and China," he said.
"Let us therefore stop making malicious speculations and false claims made to pointlessly inflame the situation. We ask everyone to just focus our time and effort on productive activities that will enable us [to] help one another at this time of [a] pandemic," added the official.
Roque's statement comes after some 240 Chinese boats were seen swarming the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the disputed South China Sea, despite several diplomatic protests from Manila.
"The President does not condone unlawful commercial fishing by any state on Philippine waters," said Roque
"However, the President also recognizes that subsistence (non-commercial) fishing may be allowed as a recognition of the traditional fishing rights pointed out by the Arbitral Tribunal itself in its Award on Jurisdiction (para. 407) in the case between the Philippines and China," he said.
This 2016 arbitral award by a United Nations-backed court junked Beijing's "historical" claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea. This followed China's blocking of Filipino fishers from traditional fishing grounds within the Philippines' EEZ.
Duterte has refused to press China to obey the ruling, as he pursued investments and loans from the economic giant. But on Monday, he said he was prepared to deploy navy ships to assert the Philippines' sovereignty to oil and mineral resources in its EEZ.
China has denied militias were aboard its ships in the West Philippine Sea.
About $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes the South China Sea each year. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
— With a report from Reuters