Lacson says PH should invoke U.S. defense treaty over Recto Bank incident

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 18) — A senator said the country should invoke its defense treaty with the U.S. over the ramming of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in Recto Bank, known internationally as Reed Bank.

Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson said Tuesday the country can raise the incident with the U.S. during the meeting of Defense ministers between the two sides in Manila next month.

“The only weapon left in our arsenal is the Mutual Defense Treaty. Why? Because ‘yung America ang may [has the] capability and they are under obligation to use that treaty,” Lacson told CNN Philippines’ The Source.

The senator, who is seen to head the Senate Defense panel in the 18th Congress, said the Philippines can present to the U.S. evidence showing what happened to the Filipino fishing vessel.

U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said last week in a TV interview that attacks sanctioned by foreign governments on Filipino vessels and aircraft will trigger their obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

Under the 67-year-old agreement, the Philippines and the U.S. would assist each other when either of them is attacked by a foreign force.

However, Malacañang is still not willing to classify the Recto Bank incident — which sank a Filipino ship and left 22 fishermen at sea — as an attack.

"Jumping to conclusion din 'yun. Kasi ang ibig sabihin nun may aggression. Eh wala, hindi pa nga natin alam 'yung facts eh," Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a media briefing Tuesday.

[Translation: That's jumping to conclusions. That means that there is aggression. But no, we don't know the facts yet.]

But Lacson insists that the Mutual Defense Treaty can be invoked even if there is no actual attack as a "proactive and preemptive measure to justify U.S. presence" in the West Philippine Sea.

The treaty says that the Philippines and the U.S. "separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack."

"We should not wait for an armed aggression against our vessels to occur before we invoke the treaty," Lacson said in a statement.

It also states that the foreign ministers of both countries will meet from time to time or when they think that their territorial integrity, political independence, or security is threatened by an external armed attack in the Pacific.

These are the only preventive measures in the MDT. All other provisions of the agreement would only be triggered in case of a foreign attack.

President Rodrigo Duterte and his Cabinet members have repeatedly balked at going to war against China, calling it a suicide mission.

“We have a leader in the Palace, not a demagogue or a rabble-rouser. A leader must be careful with his statements,” Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol said in a statement.

However, Lacson said this is “self-limiting” as the Duterte administration could raise the incident with the U.S. and invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty.

“He forgot that we have a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States and that’s a clear option. Not because we’re hoping that there would be a World War III ... but because our only hope is to make China feel that there is a balance of power in the West Philippine Sea,” Lacson said.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has called for a review of the Philippines’ defense agreement with the U.S. to clear up what he sees as ambiguities in the treaty.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a visit to the Philippines last March, assured that the treaty covers foreign attacks on Manila in the South China Sea.

‘China is lying’

Duterte broke his silence on the incident more than a week after it had happened, but Lacson said the President’s statement left him disappointed.

The President appeared to echo the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, characterizing the hitting of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel as a mere “maritime accident.”

Duterte also said that the incident should be investigated and the Chinese be given the chance to air their side.

China has said that crew aboard the Chinese ship did not help the Filipino fishermen — a possible violation of its obligations under international maritime law — out of fear that they will be “besieged” by Filipino vessels.

But Lacson finds this hard to believe.

“How could they be besieged by other fishing vessels belonging to the Filipinos kung hindi naman sila nakikita [if they could not be seen] because of very limited visibility at nighttime?” he said.

He added, “Clearly, they’re lying. And it’s even worse because the Chinese government itself is in a coverup operation, even deceiving an ally that is the Philippines. They should really come clean.”

Piñol and Lorenzana said Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua has been summoned Tuesday to Malacañang over the Recto Bank incident. This was earlier denied by Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles.

The Philippines has raised the incident before the International Maritime Organization, while Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin Jr. said in a speech at the United Nations that it is “imperative” to come to the aid of people distressed at sea.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China is a party to, requires ships to render assistance to distressed persons at sea.