Editor's Pick FACT CHECK South China Sea: Waters of Contention

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Malacañang backtracks on Duterte’s ‘verbal fishing deal’ with China

In a 180-degree turn, Malacañang denied the existence of a “verbal fishing deal” between President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Philippines’ maritime areas in the West Philippine Sea.


In a statement on April 23, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said:

“There is no truth to the speculation of a purported ‘verbal fishing agreement’ between President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and President Xi Jin Ping, 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. This is without basis and is quite simply, conjecture.”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), On the West Philippine Sea (Archived), April 23, 2021

The spokesman said a fishing agreement “can only be done through a treaty,” which “must be in writing” under the Vienna Convention on the Law on Treaties, and that “no such treaty or agreement exists” between the Philippines and China.

Asserting that the president “does not condone unlawful commercial fishing by any state on Philippine waters,” Roque called on the public to “stop making malicious speculations and false claims made to pointlessly inflame the situation.”

Roque’s statement came a day after retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said in his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the “strong diplomatic protests” and “strong warnings” issued by Philippine officials against the continued presence of Chinese vessels in various parts of the West Philippine Sea are “not being taken seriously by the Chinese because they know they have a fishing agreement” with the president.


The president himself said in a speech in June 2019 that he would “of course” allow Chinese nationals to fish within Philippine waters. This, he said, was his “agreement” with Xi so the latter would leave Filipinos to fish unharmed in China-controlled Scarborough Shoal, as subsequently explained by then presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo.

In the same speech during the 122nd founding anniversary celebration of the Presidential Security Group in Malacañang, Duterte said:

“‘Yan ang pinag-usapan namin noon (That’s what we talked about before) And that was [why] we were allowed to fish again. It was a mutual agreement. Sige bigayan tayo. Fish ka doon, fish ako dito (Okay, let’s share. You fish there, I’ll fish here).”

Source: PCOO, Speech of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte During the 122nd Founding Anniversary Celebration of the Presidential Security Group (Archived), June 26, 2019, watch from 21:10 to 21:27

The president did not distinguish between commercial and non-commercial fishing in his speech. (See Carpio: SONA makes PH-China verbal fishing deal ‘legally binding’ but violates PH charter)

He made the remarks in the aftermath of the maritime incident where a Philippine fishing boat was sunk by a Chinese vessel in Recto Bank (international name: Reed Bank), leaving 22 Filipino fisherfolk at the mercy of the high seas. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: The evolving statements on the Recto Bank allision: a visual timeline)

Less than a week following Duterte’s pronouncement, Panelo affirmed in a press briefing the so-called “verbal agreement” between the two leaders:

“[T]he President … believes that aggressively enforcing the arbitral award will only precipitate or trigger an armed conflict that could escalate into continuing bloody encounters detrimental to the national interest. Hence, he has resorted to diplomatic negotiations that may reap the desired windfall from the arbitral ruling. If you remember, before in the Scarborough [Shoal], we could not fish; our fishermen were being driven away but after that agreement with the president, they’re not being molested.”

Source: PCOO, Press Briefing of Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Secretary Salvador S. Panelo (Archived), July 2, 2019, watch from 10:09 to 11:02

Asked whether the Philippines should then “be fine” with Chinese fishermen “exploiting our [exclusive economic zone (EEZ)],” Panelo, concurrently chief presidential legal counsel, said:

“Well, that’s part of the agreement of the president in order not to trigger any armed conflict between the two sides.”

Source: watch from 14:58 to 15:13

The former spokesman then continued: “It’s a verbal agreement [but] don’t forget that bilateral meetings are recorded, so we have a record of that agreement.” (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: The evolving Palace stance on allowing China to fish in PH EEZ)

Recto Bank is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile EEZ, in which it has sovereign rights to explore, exploit, observe, and manage the natural resources, as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Apology from Chinese association falsely claims Recto Bank is China territory)

Meanwhile, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in its 2016 ruling on the South China Sea dispute between the Philippines and China, found that the latter “had violated its duty to respect the traditional fishing rights of Philippine fishermen by halting access to the [Scarborough] Shoal after May 2012.” (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Three things Duterte got wrong on the PH-China maritime standoff)

Under the 1987 Constitution, the state is mandated to “reserve … the use and enjoyment” of its marine wealth in Philippine waters, including its EEZ, “exclusively to Filipino citizens.” (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Allowing China to fish in PH EEZ violates Constitution, local laws)



PCOO, On the West Philippine Sea, April 23, 2021

United Nations, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969, Why Chinese fishermen are in the WPS, April 22, 2021

Department of Foreign Affairs, DFA protests anew illegal presence of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters, April 23, 2021

PCOO, Speech of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte During the 122nd Founding Anniversary Celebration of the Presidential Security Group (transcript), June 26, 2019

PCOO, Press Briefing of Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Secretary Salvador S. Panelo (transcript), July 2, 2019

United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: Part V Exclusive Economic Zone, Accessed April 24, 2021

Permanent Court of Arbitration, Press Release: South China Sea Arbitration Award, July 12, 2016

Official Gazette, 1987 Constitution – Article XII, Section 2

(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)