Clarifies that it's just a 'tongue-in-cheek statement'
MANILA (UPDATE) - Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III on Thursday said he sees no problem with President Rodrigo Duterte's pronouncement that Chinese fishers can venture into waters where Manila has exclusive rights over natural resources.
"He's the President. The buck stops with him. If it's wrong or right, it's his accountability," Sotto told ABS-CBN News' Christian Esguerra.
He added he does not "see anything wrong" with the presence of foreign fishers in the Philippine EEZ, "as long as we're allowed to fish also in their zones... because they will treat us as friends likewise."
Duterte earlier this week was asked if the Philippines should bar China from fishing in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. He replied that Manila and Beijing are "friends" and that there should not be any "bloody conclusion."
His spokesperson Salvador Panelo later said the government would "tolerate" China's fishermen in the EEZ, where Manila has exclusive rights to resources, based on a 2016 ruling of a United Nations-backed court.
Under the Constitution, all resources in the EEZ should only be for Filipinos, Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, earlier said.
The Fisheries Code, he added, deems the entry of foreign vessels into the 200-nautical-mile area as poaching, which can be fined.
Asked if the President's remarks could be used for an impeachment case, Sotto said the alleged poaching could be a test case.
However, he said: "It's very difficult to say that there is exclusivity when it's under water."
"The fish could be coming from China and the fish from the Philippines could be going to China," he said.
"If we want to be technical about it, relate it to the constitutionality of what should be owned by us, there are exclusive types of fish that are only found in China but can be found here because of migration perhaps. It could be a very good test case that it is a constitutional violation."
After drawing flak over his statement, Sotto told reporters: “My comments on WPS [West Philippine Sea] and its resources was a tongue-in-cheek statement. Sadly konti lang nakaintindi.”
(My comments on the West Philippine Sea and its resources was a tongue-in-cheek statement. Sadly only a few understood.)
The Senate President added that there is no pending legislation urging Duterte to put pressure on China by rallying international support for Manila's rights to the EEZ.
The EEZ includes Recto (Reed) Bank, where a Filipino fishing boat was hit and sunk by a suspected Chinese militia vessel last June 9, leaving 22 crew men adrift for hours before they were rescued by a Vietnamese craft.
Duterte has agreed to a joint probe into the sinking by Manila and Beijing.
"There are 2 sides to every story. Therefore, full investigations, joint investigations, still should all be welcome and not just confined to one investigation," Sotto said of the move.
Competing claims over the South China Sea are a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it, and rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath its waters.