June 25, 2019
ON the second day of the 34th Asean Summit in Bangkok, President Rodrigo Duterte, through Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, expressed our gratitude to the Vietnamese fishermen who rescued the 22 Filipino crew members of the Gem-Vir 1.
This act of the President is a fitting way to compensate for the terrible manner some Filipinos have treated the Vietnamese fishermen immediately after the incident.
Unthinkable as it may seem, pro-Duterte cybertrolls and some bloggers initially cast aspersions on the Vietnamese fishermen. There were those who doubted their presence, painting as unbelievable that they magically appeared from nowhere in time to rescue the Filipino crew members of Gem-Vir 1 from drowning in open sea after being hit and abandoned by a Chinese marine vessel. Others suggested some crazy CIA conspiracy to disturb the friendship between China and the Philippines, where Vietnam was allegedly an accomplice. Still others found time to malign Vietnam by pointing out that it doesn’t come in with clean hands, considering that it also often violates our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as well as those of other countries, and in fact it has on record allegedly the highest number of occupied areas in the West Philippine Sea.
So, what we have here is like a situation where your life is saved by someone after you are attacked right in your backyard, but instead of thanking him as your savior, you turn him into an accomplice because he was there to help you when he is not supposed to be there, and you accuse him of trespassing.
The statement of Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, while containing words of gratitude, effectively also accused the Vietnamese of committing an illegal act for allegedly poaching in our EEZ. “Salamat sa mga Vietnamese sa pagtulong pero you are not supposed to be there but thank God you were there. That was an illegal act that was actually providential,” Piñol said.
Granting that the Vietnamese were illegally fishing in our EEZ, it would have been more prudent for Piñol to have momentarily focused on their good deed, considering that the fact that they were indeed fishing illegally did not prevent them from performing a humane act. In fact, had the Vietnamese thought otherwise, and refused to help as that would have been used against them as it would serve as evidence that they were engaged in a prohibited act, and just sped away and left like the Chinese, our fishermen would have suffered a worse fate. After all, the Vietnamese could just have used as their line of defense the one cited by presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo contained in Article 98(1) of Unclos — that they feared for their lives as they thought that our fishermen were pirates.
Pro-Duterte defenders of China are quick to find holes and cast doubt on everyone — from the Vietnamese who saved our fishermen to our fishermen themselves — but the Chinese ship and its crew.
While indeed the Vietnamese fishing boat may have encroached into our EEZ, yet they performed an act that saved our fishermen without thinking that it could also expose their allegedly illegal presence and activity. We should contrast this to the actions of the Chinese who left our fishermen to drown for the unfounded fear that they would be harmed by other fishermen riding slower and smaller fishing boats. And while Piñol and others are quick to call out the violations of the Vietnamese for fishing within our EEZ, they are largely silent and do not take issue with the fact that the Chinese vessel was also within our EEZ.
Instead, what we get from these pro-Duterte defenders of China are arguments that point out what is not even begged as an issue — that the status of an EEZ doesn’t give us sovereignty over Recto Bank, and that we should accord any vessel freedom of navigation. It is not claimed that we have sovereignty over the Recto Bank, or that it is part of our territory. What is claimed is that we have sovereign rights over it as part of our EEZ and thus we have the sole right to exploit its natural resources, including the right to fish there.
And here is what is bizarre. No one appears to interrogate the fact that there are only two possible scenarios in relation to the nature of the Chinese marine vessel. Either it is a fishing vessel or it isn’t. If it is, then it is also committing an illegal act of violating our EEZ which Piñol and others are attaching to the Vietnamese rescuers. If it isn’t, then it behooves us to ask by what business would it claim freedom of navigation within our EEZ. Is it a normal commercial transport vessel or a private yacht? If so, what is its port of origin and its port of destination? What is the nature of its passengers or cargo? Now, if it is, as is widely suspected, a part of the Chinese naval militia, then it further behooves us to ask if it can claim freedom of navigation when its purpose is not to commercially transport people and goods, but to be used for encroaching into our free exercise of our sovereign rights over our EEZ?
These are questions that our officials and the pro-Duterte defenders of China fail to ask, even as they are quick to cast aspersions on the Vietnamese who rescued our fishermen.
Indeed, Vietnam may have encroached on our EEZ. But it doesn’t have a history of ramming our fishing boats and leaving our fishermen to drown in open sea. It doesn’t have a record of claiming our EEZ as part of its national territory. It doesn’t send militia boats to swarm around an island that is within our territorial waters.
Actually, we owe the Vietnamese not just words of gratitude. We also owe them an apology.
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