Interview with Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Secretary Salvador Panelo by Christian Esguerra (ANC)

ESGUERRA: (coverage cut) we are actually wondering how come the President himself is quiet silent so far.

SEC. PANELO:  There’s a difference there. You must remember that the Canada incident has been there for five years, it’s very long time. And this one, we don’t even know exactly what happened there, it’s still under investigation. In fact, Ted Failon – he just bumped into me – said we don’t even know whether that’s a Chinese vessel or not.

The President is a very cautious man. If you noticed he makes calibrated responses.

ESGUERRA:  Really?


ESGUERRA:  Because to a lot of people he sounds quiet reckless with his statements; but you are saying he’s quiet calibrated—


ESGUERRA:  Or is he now being more calibrated because it’s China that we are talking about here?

SEC. PANELO:  Depending on the incidents. When the President speaks, they are intentional to get some desired effects or sometimes as he calls it he shakes the tree for reactions.

ESGUERRA:  But do you buy the statement coming from the Foreign Ministry of China that this was an ordinary maritime accident?

SEC. PANELO:  Have they investigated it or they are just making a conclusion outright? The Ambassador of China, Ambassador Zhao, texted me last night and he said I could quote him.  He said they are seriously and thoroughly investigating the incident. He says that Chinese government shares our concern and if it is shown that the accident was intentional, then the culprits or the offenders would be educated and accordingly punished. That is what he said.

ESGUERRA:  But already, the Foreign Minister said that it was an ordinary maritime accident and in fact there was a warning against irresponsibly politicizing the issue. Do you think the issue has been irresponsibly politicized so far?

SEC. PANELO:  First, we are not politicizing that incident. What we are focusing is on the act of abandoning; not the collision itself, because collisions happen in the high seas. But the act of abandoning is in violation of the UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention Law on the Seas.

ESGUERRA:  When someone needs help at sea, you have to help them.


ESGUERRA:  Basically.

SEC. PANELO:  You don’t even need an international law provision on that. It’s a human act of lending hand to somebody in distress.

ESGUERRA:  But of course, since China is saying that it’s still conducting a thorough investigation into the incident. What has the Philippine government established so far? Because a lot of people are wondering: how could an accident happen in such a vast area at sea and then it was in fact anchored on Reed Bank—

SEC. PANELO:  That’s precisely why we gave a diplomatic protest to them and we are waiting for a response. And I’m glad that Ambassador Zhao made a responsible response to that. He said they will thoroughly and seriously investigate the incident.

ESGUERRA:  How likely that the Filipino fishing boat was in fact hit or rammed by a Chinese vessel given the circumstances and the facts that you know so far—that the government know so far.

SEC. PANELO:  We are against it, assuming that is really a Chinese vessel that rammed it or that bumped it or that sank it.

ESGUERRA:  So there is now a possibility that it was not a Chinese vessel?

SEC. PANELO:  I really don’t know, because we are waiting for the investigation.

ESGUERRA:  Because all this started when Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana issued a statement, he talked about the collision and then he said it was a Chinese vessel; and now you are saying that it might not have been a Chinese vessel.

SEC. PANELO:  Well, it is a possibility. But Secretary Lorenzana has basis for saying that. It could have been that that was the report given him.

ESGUERRA:  So, what was the basis of the report in the first place?

SEC. PANELO:  Coming from the military Western Command. But regardless of whatever, we are against it, we are condemning it and we are not going to sit idly and just watch.

ESGUERRA:  Have you received a formal response to the diplomatic protest?

SEC. PANELO:  Secretary Locsin has not informed me of any response yet. We filed the—if I am not mistaken, the diplomatic protest was filed yesterday.

ESGUERRA:  And so far how do you think this issue should be handled? Because we know that under President Rodrigo Duterte there have been improved ties between the Philippines and China – of course, there are a lot of concerns regarding the way China has been violating Philippines sovereignty – and yet this particular thing now happens.

And then yesterday I think you were quoted as saying that the logical progression if you are not satisfied by the response of the Chinese government, of course an option would be cutting diplomatic ties.

SEC. PANELO:  Yes, because a question was predicated on: are we just filing a diplomatic protest, what if we are content with that? And I said if based on the decision of the President with respect to the trash issue of Canada – when the diplomatic personnel were recalled and then he even said he would declare war – then the logical consequence would be that –  the recall and then the… you have to reduce the diplomatic relations.

ESGUERRA:  So, so far, when is the—appease the Philippine government and of course when do you expect the Chinese government to give you a full account of what happened?

SEC. PANELO:  Well, hopefully soon. If they are investigating and as according to Ambassador Zhao they are thoroughly and seriously investigating the matter. So we expect the response very soon.

ESGUERRA:  How about the concern that incidents like this is not isolated when it comes to the involvement of Chinese vessels that they have done that several times against Vietnamese fishing vessels?

SEC. PANELO:  Well, not us.

ESGUERRA:  So, are you also concerned that this might be something related to what the Chinese have been doing to Vietnamese fishing boats?

SEC. PANELO:  Well I hope not, I hope not. That would be very dangerous if that is… that has been the plan of the Chinese government.

ESGUERRA:  Because?

SEC. PANELO:  Because can you imagine if they will be doing that to every country that they feel are against them?

ESGUERRA:  Of course, you are aware that the Chinese maritime militia is also part of its posturing in the disputed waters and now here you have the possibility that the Filipino fishing boat might have been rammed by a Chinese vessel. So, what’s steps is the government taking to make sure that these thing won’t happened again, assuming that that was indeed the case that this was a Chinese maritime militia vessel that was involved?

SEC. PANELO:  As I said, the government will have a calibrated response to this incident. Depending on their response then we will make our reply.

ESGUERRA:  But what was the Chinese vessel doing there in the first place?

SEC. PANELO:  That we do not know yet.

ESGUERRA:  But based on initial information that you received?

SEC. PANELO:  I haven’t read the entire report coming from the Western Command.

ESGUERRA: But did they have any business being there, let say fishing there?

SEC. PANELO:  That I do not know. I have no personal knowledge of that.

ESGUERRA:  In the coming months perhaps, what steps can we take to make sure that at least Filipino fishermen are protected in areas that are clearly within our exclusive economic zone?

SEC. PANELO:  I think we should be having more coast guards there.

ESGUERRA:  Do you have enough resources to provide those?

SEC. PANELO:  We can always find resources if we want to.

ESGUERRA:  So, here, do you think it’s fair to… for a lot of people especially the critics to somehow focus on this particular issue. Of course, this has been line ever since, that the engagement between Philippines and China is wide—


ESGUERRA:  And yet certain irritants might happen. But of course, I think the concern here is that given the way the Philippine government has been engaging with China there should have been least expectation that something like this would be done to Filipinos by our so-called friends. How do you respond to that?

SEC. PANELO:  To be done, which means it’s intentional. We don’t know that yet.

ESGUERRA:  So, ano nga ba talaga kasi? Because I think in the first place, Secretary Lorenzana said it was a collision by a Chinese vessel and then there was a tweet coming from Secretary Locsin, he filed a diplomatic protest; and now, the version has been… is somehow changing—

SEC. PANELO:  Not really.

ESGUERRA:  There is now doubt na—

SEC. PANELO:  Not really, not really. Because some people are saying… just like Ted Failon, ‘are we even sure?’ As far as I am concerned that’s the report. So unless that will be proven reversely by the Chinese government, our reports stands that it’s a Chinese vessel; and we will not allow it.

ESGUERRA:  Now, here—there was a statement coming from the director of the UP Maritime Institute of the Law of the Sea, si Professor Jay Batumbakal. He said one moving vessel does not accidentally collide with an anchored vessel in an empty ocean. It can only be deliberate.

SEC. PANELO:  That’s a speculation.

ESGUERRA:  But given the situation there. Parang it was highly unlikely for two ships, two fishing boats “to collide.” One was anchored.

SEC. PANELO:  But regardless of whether it was intentional or not, our point is you cannot abandon people who are in distress. That’s barbaric as far as we are concerned.

ESGUERRA:  How did the Chinese Ambassador respond to this particular position of yours?

SEC. PANELO:  As I said—

ESGUERRA:  Di, specifically doon, doon sa pag-abandon ng Filipino fishermen.

SEC. PANELO:  Wala, basta sinabi niya, we share your concern and we are thoroughly and seriously investigating it. If it has found out that it was intentional, then they will have to give the necessary punishment.

ESGUERRA:  Do you think there’s also a need to somehow reassess our strategy when it comes to the West Philippine Sea, the dispute over the South China Sea? Given the possibility that this particular approach by China might not have been isolated, kasi nga they have been doing this by the Vietnamese vessels before.

SEC. PANELO:  Well, I think there should be a reassessment of the mechanism, what issues are being threshed out and how to go about it, how to prevent similar incidents to happening again.

By the way, let me share to you what the Ambassador said in the last paragraph of his text message. He said that ‘incidents happen even in the best regulated family.’ In other words, it could be saying that, we don’t know about that.

ESGUERRA:  Wasn’t he referring to his government?

SEC. PANELO:  Exactly! In other words what he is saying is, if that was intentionally made by that crew, then they have no part of that. But just the same he is saying that if they did that, then he is against that irresponsible behavior and punitive action will be taken against them.

ESGUERRA:  But isn’t that quiet naïve, a perspective coming from… let say from the Philippines when in fact that these are no – assuming that they are Chinese ha – that these are no ordinary Chinese fisherman, that they are part of this maritime militia offenses.

SEC. PANELO:  Whether they are part or not, we are against it, we condemn it, we will not allow it.

ESGUERRA:  Now, let’s try to push the envelope here. So that was one incident that took place on Reed Bank. Of course, it sparked a lot of condemnation from Filipinos and thankfully even from the Philippine government.

Now let’s talk about the other issues related to the West Philippine Sea, for example, the continuous poaching of giant clams by Chinese fishermen. Can we also expect a tougher stance or position coming from the Philippine government to make sure that the Chinese government would do something about this clearly illegal action?

SEC. PANELO:  Yeah, of course, we’re against it. As I said – much earlier in an interview with you – I said, ‘there should be more coast guards there.’ Because the problem is if you have only a few coast guards when they are away, then something happens, when they get back nobody is there.

ESGUERRA:  But can’t we tell China that since this is illegal, giant clam poaching; don’t prevent the Philippine authorities from let say accosting these illegal fishermen doing this illegal activity. Because the fear is that they are being protected, not from afar, by China’s own vessels.

SEC. PANELO:  Well, they should do their part. But just like us, sometimes crimes are committed without our knowing it, even if we try to prevent it.

ESGUERRA:  Again, isn’t that a bit naïve because we know that the Chinese fishermen are doing that poaching there while the vessels, let’s say the coast guard or even perhaps gray ships are guarding in a horizon. So basically, they are getting a lot of protection from the government itself.

SEC. PANELO:  But the government is denying that. Like for instance in that—I remember during the Chinese visit, the Ambassador was telling us that the number of vessels that were anchored there, not doing anything or—

ESGUERRA:  Scarborough? Are you referring Pag-asa?

SEC. PANELO:  Yeah, yeah. I think in Pag-asa. They were, I think—it was a fishing season.

ESGUERRA:  Hindi, mamaya tayo—doon tayo pupunta mamaya sa Pag-asa. I am referring to Scarborough. So basically you have a clear illegal activity going on there, going on for so long. Yet it’s very difficult to go after these illegal Chinese fishermen doing giant clam poaching because they are getting a lot of protection from their own government.

SEC. PANELO:  Well, assuming that they are being given that protection, then we have to tell the Chinese government to stop it, because that’s illegal.

ESGUERRA:  But what has the Philippine government actually done to somehow nudge the Chinese to do something about this?

SEC. PANELO:  Well, that should be taken during the—

ESGUERRA:  Bilateral Consultation Mechanism.

SEC. PANELO:  Yeah, bilateral and we should be very firm on our stand—

ESGUERRA:  But even that, the BCM is being highly criticized because the perception is that that’s an added layer to allow the Chinese to dribble things around and basically do nothing about Philippine concerns in the West Philippine Sea.

SEC. PANELO:  Well, perhaps the President would have a different tack this time, because you must remember that he said if Filipinos are hurt by any incident, then that will be a different story.

ESGUERRA:  But do we have wait for someone to get physically hurt for us to do more when it comes to trying to prevent these things from happening?

SEC. PANELO:  No, But as I said he makes calibrated response depending on the situation; and so far he has done well.

ESGUERRA:  So do you buy that claim that the Chinese government is not providing any sort of protection to their fishermen involved in giant clam poaching in Scarborough?

SEC. PANELO:  No. I think the Chinese government would be protecting their own citizens; but they cannot be protecting criminals. If they are committing illegal acts, then it’s their duty to punish, prosecute them and stop their illegal actions.

ESGUERRA:  Now, let’s go to the other side of the West Philippine Sea, Pag-asa. As far as you know, how many Chinese fishing vessels which are suspected to be part of the Chinese maritime militia are still in the area?

SEC. PANELO:  I do not know of the exact numbers. But what I know – during the China visit – the Chinese Ambassador was telling us, that the reason why there are so many vessels there is because it was fishing season and he said a month before that, that since the fishing season will be ending next month, then they will disappear; and they did!

ESGUERRA:  So, that basically confirms—

SEC. PANELO: That was actually the explanation of the Ambassador why there are so many ships there.

ESGUERRA:  So, somehow that confirms the position by people like Jay Batumbakal, who said that—because the Special Envoy Ramon Tulfo made a big fuzz about the fact that around 100 Chinese fishing vessels supposedly had left the area and he attributed that to supposed back door negotiations between the Philippines and China and now you are saying that it’s because, it was the end of the fishing season.

SEC. PANELO:  Because when we were in China that was the official line of the Chinese Ambassador.

ESGUERRA:  So, the withdrawal or the fact that around 100 Chinese fishing vessels had left the area of Pag-asa island, that’s attributed to the end of the fishing season?

SEC. PANELO:  It would seem so, as told to us by the Chinese Ambassador.

ESGUERRA:  So backdoor negotiations—

SEC. PANELO:    I don’t know about the backdoor negotiation. I’m not privy to that.

ESGUERRA:  So what does it say, when you have a situation where, again, we are talking here not just of ordinary Chinese fishermen, but a maritime militia that seem to have been intimidating Filipinos in that area. And of course the suspicion was that they are actually monitoring the construction on Pag-asa. So, are we actually—do we have  a semblance of control as far as our affairs or concern there when in fact the Chinese fishermen left because it was actually the end  of the fishing season. Hindi naman pala dahil may usapan between the Philippines and—

SEC. PANELO:  Or puwede rin naman na kaya sila umalis, talagang wala naman silang ginagawa doon kung hindi mag-fish, hindi ba.

ESGUERRA:  So, what were your findings so far? What were they doing there in the first place?

SEC. PANELO:  I don’t know about the Western Command. I haven’t read their report.

ESGUERRA:  Now, finally Secretary Panelo, how do you think this particular incident – sama-sama na iyan di ba: Pag-asa, giant clam poaching and now the recent incident, the allegation that it was the Chinese vessel that actually rammed a Filipino fishing boat that was anchored on Recto Bank. How do you think this would affect Philippine-China relations?

SEC. PANELO:  Well, it depends on the President’s reaction on that. He is the chief architect of our foreign policy.

ESGUERRA:  But you said he was outraged.

SEC. PANELO:  Yeah. Who will be not be outraged, ordinary citizens would be.

ESGUERRA:  So, would this lead to the point of somehow reassessing how this wealthy neighbor—

SEC. PANELO:  I think so, yes, there will be reassessment.


SEC. PANELO:  Of the policy vis-à-vis our relationship with the Chinese government.

ESGUERRA:  Secretary  Salvador Panelo, thank you very much for joining us.

SEC. PANELO:  Thank you.