“Philippine Sovereign Limits” by Malcolm Cook

2019/56, 8 July 2019

On 9 June, a much larger, steel-hulled Chinese fishing vessel hit a Filipino one near Recto Bank in the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Recto Bank is roughly 100 nautical miles from Palawan and 600 nautical miles from Hainan Island. The Chinese vessel abandoned the 22 Filipino fishermen to their fate in the dark night. A nearby Vietnamese fishing vessel, in accordance with customary maritime law, rescued the 22.
This incident shows that the Philippine state is unable to uphold its sovereign rights in the Philippine exclusive economic zone, and the constitutional requirement that “the State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.” The Filipino vessel anchored on the country’s continental shelf was hit by a Chinese fishing vessel and the Filipino fishers were saved by a Vietnamese vessel. Neither of these two foreign vessels should have been there.

Many states face serious capability constraints that make it impossible for them to effectively uphold their all their sovereign rights in all their exclusive economic zones. The Philippines as a middle-income archipelagic country with a large exclusive economic zone is clearly one of these.

The official explanations for the presence of the Chinese fishing vessel deep within the Philippine exclusive economic zone show that the Duterte administration is unwilling to uphold Philippine sovereign rights and the 1987 Constitution in the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. President Duterte has repeatedly said he is unable to do so against Chinese vessels as this could trigger war with China. Yet, many other states are enforcing their sovereign rights in their exclusive economic zones by apprehending, and even sinking Chinese vessels viewed as infringing upon these rights. So far none of these states has been attacked by China.

President Duterte’s official spokesperson Salvador Panelo, in response to questions about 9 June, has stated that President Duterte in October 2016 reached a legally-binding verbal agreement with President Xi Jinping that the Philippines will not stop Chinese vessels fishing in the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ inability to fully uphold its sovereign rights is an unfortunate reality. The Duterte administration’s unwillingness to do so in this case is an unfortunate choice.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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