What’s in that deal?
A quick end without even a semblance of a beginning. That is what the Filipino people will likely end up with given the baffling stance being taken by the Duterte administration on the incident that happened that fateful night of June 9 in Recto Bank between Filipino fishermen and a Chinese trawler.
Instead of pulling out all the stops to investigate and resolve the conflicting reports surrounding the ramming and sinking of the anchored FB Gem-Ver 1 fishing boat by a Chinese vessel and the abandonment at sea of its 22 crewmen, the administration is entertaining the plea of the Chinese government to just close the book on the thorny issue.
“We have to put closure to this because our relations are being affected,” presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said, quoting Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua.
Panelo, unsurprisingly, agreed wholeheartedly with Zhao and pooh-poohed the matter as having being blown out of proportion for political point-scoring: “Mini-milk lang ng kalaban ni Presidente. Ginagatasan lang, ginagamit (against him). Kaya we have to put closure to this. Pinapalaki na hindi naman dapat pang palakihin” (Enemies are really milking this, using it against him. That’s why we have to put closure to this. [They are] making a big issue out of nothing).
Never mind that nobody has been punished, or any accountability extracted, not only for the brazen intrusion into Philippine territory (what was the Chinese vessel doing within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) — a charge the Duterte administration had no problem lobbing at the Vietnamese vessel that saved the Filipino fishermen?), but, more odiously, the Chinese crewmen’s hit-and-run behavior as the Filipino fishermen clung to life in the waters.
President Duterte has justified his lily-livered response by citing a heretofore unheard of and undisclosed “verbal, informal agreement” with Chinese President Xi Jinping that was allegedly forged during their first bilateral meeting in October 2016.
The agreement is supposed to be a practical quid pro quo between the two countries — the Philippines allowing China to trawl in the country’s EEZ in exchange for Filipino fishermen being allowed, in turn, to pursue their livelihood in peace in waters that China claims, but which has been the Filipinos’ traditional fishing ground for generations. Specifically, the Filipino fishermen were granted access to Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in 2012 after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy.
The finer details of the Xi-Duterte “agreement,” however, which stands to have a profound effect on national security and may potentially risk violating the constitutional provision mandating the Philippine government to protect the country’s territory and reserve its exclusive use to Filipino citizens, remains shrouded in mystery. Malacañang would rather keep the public in the dark about its particulars.
But as to whether China has deigned to keep its end of the supposed bargain, various incidents over the last three years say otherwise.
In June 2018, Filipino fishermen complained of harassment by the Chinese Coast Guard who boarded their boats and unceremoniously seized their catch. In May this year, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that a large number of Chinese clam boats had returned to Scarborough Shoal, once again to strip reefs of precious corals and giant clams that nurture marine life in the area.
The predatory practice had been going on since at least December 2018, but the Duterte administration’s response was perfectly illustrated by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s tweet on the subject: “But these are just fucking food; no one goes to war for clams…”
In April, the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines also reported that around 200 Chinese vessels had been massing up since January near Pag-asa island off Palawan, scaring off Filipino fisherfolk. Malacañang’s reaction? “Ask [China] politely” about the aggressive swarming exercise.
Where was the alleged top-level Xi-Duterte agreement in all this, and how was it working to govern the escalating tensions between Filipinos and their Chinese counterparts in the flash point area?
Before the June 9 boat-ramming incident, nowhere was the “verbal, informal” agreement invoked to thresh out issues that had cropped up.
So what, exactly, is in that deal? What did President Duterte commit to China in the name of the Filipino people — four out of five of whom, according to public polling, are resolutely opposed to the government’s gutless posture toward Mr. Duterte’s friends in Beijing?
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