The Philippines said Thursday it had lodged a diplomatic protest claiming that a Chinese vessel rammed into and sank a Filipino fishing boat anchored in the disputed South China Sea, whereas officials in Beijing described the incident as an accident.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin announced the move a day after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana denounced the sinking of the FB Gimber1 near the Recto Bank and alleged that the Chinese fishing vessel had abandoned the 22 crew members of the Filipino boat at sea. A Vietnamese vessel later picked up and transported the Filipinos to safety at a military station on Palawan island, west of Manila.
“I fired off a diplomatic protest yesterday,” Locsin said on Twitter, adding that he filed the complaint with the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping.
Also on Thursday, Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo deplored the alleged desertion of the Filipinos by the Chinese ship as being “uncivilized as it is outrageous.”
“Regardless of the nature of the collision, whether it was accidental or intentional, common decency and the dictates of humanity require the immediate saving of the crew of the downed Philippine vessel,” Panelo said in a statement.
“The present territorial conflict between the countries of the two colliding vessels pertaining to the area where the collision occurred is not, and cannot be, an impediment for the offending vessel to lend a hand to the distressed crew,” he added.
The incident, he said, was a “crystal violation of maritime protocols” and “an infringement of internationally accepted practices of assisting a vessel in distress.”
Panelo called on Beijing to investigate the collision and impose “proper sanctions” against the Chinese crew.
At a press briefing in Beijing on Thursday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the incident between the two fishing boats was “an ordinary maritime traffic accident” and that China was still investigating it, according to Agence France-Presse.
“If the relevant reports are true, regardless of the country from which the perpetrator came from, their behavior should be condemned,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.
But he also said it was irresponsible for the Philippines to “politicize the incident without verification,” AFP reported.
‘Far from accidental’
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Philippine military’s Western Command in Palawan province, which faces the South China Sea, said the incident appeared to be intentional.
“The Filipino fishing boat was anchored at the Recto Bank, meaning it’s not moving. It was anchored because it’s already evening. It was hit by the Chinese vessel. After the collision, the Chinese vessel immediately left, escaped. It’s like a hit and run,” Lt. Col. Stephen Penetrante said.
“According to our report, it’s far from accidental. If it’s accidental, it's SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] that they should stop, they should rescue these fishermen,” he added.
The incident clearly displayed Chinese aggressiveness in the disputed sea region, according to former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.
He, along with former government ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, had earlier filed a case before the International Criminal Court asking it to investigate Chinese leader Xi Jinping over Beijing’s alleged plan to control the South China Sea.
“What is obvious is that Goliath, the neighborhood bully, will continue to rear its ugly head to intimidate our poor fishermen. We need to find a way to hold China’s leadership accountable,” del Rosario said.
“We trust that our recent communication to the ICC prosecutor will now be treated with greater urgency –that crimes against humanity must be curtailed,” he added.
In 2016, following a tense standoff between the navies of the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal, an international tribunal ruled in favor of Manila. Evidence presented then on behalf of the Philippines documented that clam extraction by Chinese fishing boats had damaged some 25,000 hectares of shallow reef surfaces. China ignored the ruling.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected two months before the tribunal issued its decision, engaged instead in the beginning with Beijing as his government distanced itself from traditional Western allies, namely the United States. More recently, however, he took a harder stance toward China as he consolidated power through May 2019 senatorial elections.
Jay Batongbacal, head of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, said it was too early to say whether the situation between Manila and Beijing would escalate over the South China Sea.
China claims most of the mineral-rich sea region, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the region.
“If the Philippines does not demand accountability for this incident, it will keep happening until Filipinos are unable to access their own natural resources in their own waters,” Batongbacal told BenarNews.
He said President Rodrigo Duterte’s “softness” in dealing with issues related to the dispute had “allowed China to operate freely and widely” in the South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
“This is possibly a preview of the kind of conduct or behavior we can expect from them in the future,” he said.
Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato.