Updated at 1:18 p.m. ET on 2019-08-28
The owner of a Chinese vessel that rammed and sank a Philippine boat in the disputed South China Sea in June has apologized, Manila’s foreign office announced Wednesday, just before President Rodrigo Duterte departed for brief visit to Beijing.
The sinking of the Filipino vessel on June 9 in a Philippine territory in the South China Sea had triggered anti-Chinese protests here, especially after Duterte told Congress in July that he could not do anything in the face of Chinese aggression. 22 Filipino fishermen were left wading at sea before they were picked up by a passing Vietnamese boat.
Duterte has since appeared to change his tune, and said that he would raise the territorial dispute issue with China when he meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week.
The incident was an “accidental collision,” according to a memorandum sent to the foreign department by a Chinese association that includes the firm that owned the erring Chinese vessel.
The department did not answer questions, but said it had translated the “apology” it received.
“It was fortunate that there were no casualties,” the letter said, as it expressed “deep regret” and “deep sympathy” to the Filipino fishermen. It was signed by Chen Shiquin, president of the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association.
“The shipowner of the Chinese fishing boat involved, through our association, would like to express his sincere apology to the Filipino fishermen,” the memorandum said.
It said the Chinese vessel involved was registered in Guangdong. The group said that immediately after the accident it had carried out an investigation.
“We believe that although the accident was an unintentional mistake of the Chinese fishermen, the Chinese fishing boat should however take the major responsibility in the accident,” it said. “The Philippines side is requested to file a specific appeal for civil compensation based on the actual loss.”
The letter came as Duterte departed Wednesday for China, his fifth visit to the country so far.
The trip was upon the invitation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Duterte’s office said, and would feature a one-on-one meeting later in the week where the two “would discuss the comprehensive strategic cooperation” between both nations.
Among others topics, Duterte “intends to discuss with President Xi the crafting of a code of conduct in the South China Sea and how they can expedite its conclusion,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
Duterte believes that the absence of the code has caused “numerous conflicts” in the South China Sea, a potentially mineral-rich sea region that hosts some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, he said.
China has been dragging its feet on the formulation of the code since talks on regulating the behavior particularly of South China Sea claimants began in 2002 between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Beijing.
The conflicts, which include the boat collision, could have been prevented “by a document that will regulate their actions,” Panelo said.
Apology accepted by Manila
“In relation to this, we accept the recent apology extended by the owner of the Chinese vessel to our fishermen affected by the incident,” he stressed. “We likewise welcome the owner’s humility to take responsibility and acknowledgement that compensation be provided to cover the actual loss.”
He said Duterte was also expected to raise with Xi a 2016 ruling by an international arbitration court that threw out China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea. During his annual address to Congress last month, Duterte said he could not do anything to enforce the ruling, noting that he would rather solve the dispute inside a conference room than on the battlefield.
“I will just feed my army and the military and the police to the mouths of hell,” he had said, adding that if that were to happen “they will all die.”
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, with the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam having overlapping claims to the sea region.
On Wednesday, Panelo said Duterte would ask Xi for “ways and means to go about the conduct and framework of a possible joint exploration” for oil and gas in the disputed region.