Malacañang denied Friday the existence of a verbal agreement on fishing between President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping even if the Philippine leader confirmed the deal in 2019.
Duterte's spokesperson Harry Roque dismissed as "without basis" the reported verbal fishing agreement between the two leaders as Chinese ships linger near a reef in the West Philippine Sea, ignoring Manila's protests.
“There is no truth to the speculation of a purported ‘verbal fishing agreement’ between President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and President Xi Jinping, nor that Chinese vessels were encouraged to stay in the West Philippine Sea despite the diplomatic protests and strongly-worded statements of Philippine government officials,” Roque said in a statement.
“This is without basis and is quite simply, conjecture,” he added.
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Roque made the remark even if Duterte said in 2019 that he made a deal with Xi during the first year of his presidency, allowing Chinese fishermen in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
“We cannot drive them away, because they have insisted na kanila (that it's theirs too),” Duterte said in a speech in 2019.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea and, has refused to recognize a United Nations backed-arbitral ruling that invalidated its sweeping claims in the vital waterway.
Duterte in the past also said that the verbal agreement was forged after China allowed Filipinos to fish again in the Scarborough Shoal.
The supposed verbal agreement, however, cannot be enforced according to top Cabinet officials -- Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Cabinet Sec. Karlo Nograles.
Locsin in 2019 called the supposed deal "not policy" while Nograles described it as "an agreement to agree." But Duterte's then spokesperson and top legal counsel Salvador Panelo said it was "legally binding."
Citing the Vienna Convention on the Law on Treaties, Roque said any fishing agreement should be put in writing. He added that under Philippine laws, fishing deals could only be done through treaties.
“Clearly, a treaty must be in writing. No such treaty or agreement exists between the Philippines and China,” Roque said.
"The President does not condone unlawful commercial fishing by any state on Philippine waters. However, the President also recognizes that subsistence (non-commercial) fishing may be allowed as a recognition of the traditional fishing rights pointed out by the Arbitral Tribunal itself..." he added.
In a recent speech, Duterte said he would only deploy gray (navy) ships to the West Philippine Sea should China drill for oil in the disputed waters.