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MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines' lead counsel against China denied that Manila needs Beijing's permission to fish in the West Philippine Sea, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he sealed a fishing deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"Absolutely not," said lawyer Paul Reichler in an exclusive interview with Rappler on Monday, July 1.
"The Philippines has the right under international law, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to have exclusive rights to the fish within 200 miles of Palawan," Reichler added.
Specifically on Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), he said, "Filipino fishermen have the right to fish in and around Scarborough Shoal without a need for an agreement with China, without China's consent."
A world-renowned lawyer, Reichler led the Philippines' legal team in its case against China at The Hague. He spoke to Rappler via Skype from West Virginia, days before the Philippines marked the 3rd anniversary of the Hague ruling on July 12.
We asked him about Duterte's recent admission that he entered into an agreement with Xi to allow Chinese fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, in exchange for China allowing Filipinos also to fish.
The West Philippine Sea is part of the South China Sea that belongs to the Philippines based on the Hague ruling of July 12, 2016. China continues to claim these waters, and the sea dispute heated up again after a Filipino fishing boat was sunk by a Chinese ship in Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea. (READ: Recto Bank incident 'clear violation' of int'l law – PH lead counsel)
Reichler explained to Rappler, "The Philippines as a sovereign state has the right to permit other states to fish in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ)."
He added, "What is most important here is that it is up to the Philippines, in its exercise of its sovereign discretion, to decide whether to allow Chinese fishermen or fishermen of other nationalities to fish within its EEZ."
Prohibited by Constitution
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said, however, that the Philippine Constitution prohibits allowing foreign fishermen to fish in the Philippines' EEZ.
"The Philippine government cannot allow Chinese fishermen to fish in Philippine exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea because it will violate the Constitution," Carpio said on June 25.
Carpio explained, "The Constitution mandates, 'The State shall protect the nation's marine wealth in its...exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.'"
"This means that the Philippine government cannot allow Chinese fishermen to fish in our EEZ in the West Philippine Sea. This also means that the 'use and enjoyment' of the fish in our EEZ is reserved exclusively to Filipinos," said Carpio, one of the Philippines' leading experts on the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte recently said Filipino fishermen were "allowed" by China to fish again in the West Philippine Sea after he struck a deal with Xi.
"And that was why we were allowed to fish again. It was a mutual agreement," the Philippine leader said.– Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.