MANILA -- The Philippines will not surrender its sovereignty to China by agreeing to a joint investigation on the sinking of a Filipino vessel after it was hit by a suspected Chinese militia vessel in disputed waters, a justice official said.
The Philippines only has "sovereign rights" to the Reed Bank (Recto Bank) area, said Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, "sovereign rights" means the signatory to the treaty can explore and exploit marine resources within its exclusive economic zone.
"No issue of sovereignty is involved in the investigation of this marine or navigation incident at sea," Perete said.
"The only issues in the joint inquiry are which party was at fault for the collision and the amount of restitution due to the offended party, and whether there was any liability on the Chinese side for leaving the scene of the incident without extending help to the Filipino fishermen," he said.
The Filipino boat was anchored near Reed Bank, which is part of Manila's EEZ, when it was hit and sank by the Chinese trawler, leaving 22 fishermen adrift for hours before they were picked up by Vietnamese craft.
The Philippines needs "the cooperation of the other parties to the case" if it wants a "comprehensive investigation" of the incident, Perete told ANC.
"In so far as that area is concerned, we only have sovereign rights and that is not equivalent to sovereignty. Therefore, when you ask for joint investigation, you are not by that instance surrendering sovereignty," he said.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra supported this in a separate statement, saying the EEZ "is not part of Philippine territory."
The joint investigation with China and a third party "may be interpreted as a waiver of our right of ownership of Recto Bank," Sen. Panfilo Lacson earlier warned.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario also said that under the set-up, "you have one party that is looking for the truth and another party that is out to suppress it so it's not gonna work."
China is claiming nearly all of the South China Sea, conflicting with partial claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
Beijing said its trawler merely "bumped" into the Philippine boat and tried to rescue the fishermen but was "afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats."