MANILA - A resource-rich area in the West Philippine Sea where a Filipino boat sank after being rammed by a Chinese vessel "is not within the territory that is owned by Philippines," a former Cabinet official said Thursday.
The Filipino boat was anchored near Recto (Reed) Bank when it was hit by a Chinese boat that left 22 Filipino crewmen adrift for hours before they were rescued by a Vietnamese craft last June 10.
"The area where one might say a Chinese vessel encroached into is not within the territory that is owned by Philippines. It is still international waters, even as it is part of our Exclusive Economic Zone," former Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay told ANC.
Manila cannot invoke its mutual defense treaty with Washington given this context and the fact that the Filipino craft is not a public vessel, he added.
Reed Bank is within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile EEZ and far from China's nearest major landmass.
There are "no overlapping entitlements between the Philippines (and) China" over Reed Bank, based on a 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed court that invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims to the waterway, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay said earlier this week.
"Because the Reed Bank is within our exclusive economic zone, we’re the only ones who have the right to fish there. And so the Chinese have no business fishing in our exclusive economic zone," Hilbay said.
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, meanwhile, said "the West Philippine Sea belongs to the Philippines."
"My generation laid the foundation by winning the arbitral ruling," he said Wednesday.
"The next generation... must build on these foundations so that our exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea will belong truly to the Filipinos and all the resources there, the fish, oil and gas resources will be enjoyed exclusively by Filipino citizens, including Reed Bank because that’s part of our EEZ."
SUPPORT FOR DUTERTE
The typically brash President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday called for calm over the Chinese trawler's failure to rescue the 22 Filipino fishermen, which was earlier dubbed as a "hit-and-run" by some local officials.
"We must always support the President on this matter because he is the one that defines what's in the best national interest for us now. At the end of the day, we hold him accountable if he falls short of that duty," Yasay said.
Duterte, he added, " should be given leeway in determining what is in the best interests of the country."
"In dealing with this incident, he has to be very careful, he has to play a very delicate balancing act in making sure that there would be no mistakes and there would be no unnecessary provocations that will have to be made without of course compromising the truth about what has really happened," said Yasay.
Duterte has largely set aside the Philippines' row with Beijing over the key waterway to court trade and investments, but also occasionally criticized China's actions there.
Opposition politicians as well as segments of the public charge that Duterte has bartered away Philippine sovereignty with little to show in return.
Yasay's successor, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin lodged a diplomatic protest against Beijing last week, but refused to ask other nations for support.
"F*** the international community. It can be bought. This is our fight and in the end ours alone," he said in a June 12 tweet.
Manila "should be very cautious" of marshaling international support over the incident because of the "countervailing interests" of other countries, said Yasay.
However, the Philippines "should not give China an indefinite period to come up with their investigation", he said.
"We have to gather all of the information available to us to make sure that at it end of the day, we're able to peg responsibilities, peg accountabilities and we are able to do justice to the fishermen whom I think at this point are clearly the victims of that incident," he said.
With a report from Agence France-Presse