The Philippines expressed “deep concern” Wednesday over a Chinese coast guard ship’s alleged sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in the disputed South China Sea last week, as Manila joined Hanoi and Washington in criticizing Beijing over the incident.
The Philippine foreign office issued what it called a “statement of solidarity” with Hanoi. The statement rebuked Beijing for the incident in waters near the Paracel Islands – which both China and Vietnam claim. It described the sinking as a “provocation” amid a global crisis around the COVID-19 outbreak.
Manila “values the maintenance of peace and stability” in the South China Sea, and violence in the maritime region effectively “undermines the potential of a genuinely deep and trusting regional relationship” between the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said.
“There is never a good time to indulge in provocations,” the statement said. “They usually end in defeat of aggression or a devastating price of victory.”
“But it is always a good time to rise in the defense and affirmation of our respective sovereignties and in the peace and stability of our region especially in a time of pandemic,” the department added.
The statement also urged all claimants to the strategic sea region to maintain “good behavior.”
China claims most of the potentially mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors and are part of their respective exclusive economic zones. The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the sea.
Vietnam’s government accused the China Coast Guard (CCG) of sinking the fishing boat near the Paracels on April 2, and has lodged an official protest with Beijing.
“The Chinese vessel committed an act that violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa,” a spokeswoman for Hanoi’s foreign ministry said on April 3, using the Vietnamese name for the Paracels, “and threatened the lives and damaged the property and legitimate interest of Vietnamese fishermen.”
The Chinese, for their part, claim that the Vietnamese boat sank itself after ramming a CCG ship.
“In the early hours of April 2, the Vietnamese fishing vessel QNg 90617 illegally entered the waters of the Xisha islands to engage in fishing activities,” a release from the coast guard said, using the Chinese name for the Paracel islands.
“It sank after hitting China Coast Guard 4301. All eight crew members were rescued by our coast guard,” the statement said, referring to the coast guard ship by its number.
On Monday, the U.S. State Department criticized China over the incident, issuing a statement saying this was “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”
‘Our own similar experience’
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has tried not to antagonize China since taking office in 2016. He has said that his country could not defend itself properly against the Asian superpower in the case of aggression or war.
Last year, a Chinese trawler rammed into a Filipino fishing boat near Recto Bank in the disputed region, leaving 22 fishermen adrift at sea for hours before a passing Vietnamese boat rescued them.
At the time Duterte came under intense domestic pressure to protest the incident. But the president later said there was nothing he could do against China.
Wednesday’s statement from the foreign office pointed to how the sinking of the Philippine boat had created cracks in Sino-Philippine relations.
“Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it, and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen,” the department said.
“We have not stopped and will not stop thanking Vietnam,” its statement added, noting that this was the main reason why it was issuing the “statement of solidarity.”
Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, contributed to this report.