A Chinese fishing vessel struck a Filipino boat in the disputed South China Sea and left 22 fishermen to fend for themselves in rough seas before they were rescued by a Vietnam-flagged ship, the Philippine Defense chief said Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana identified the stricken vessel as FB Gimber1, which sank after it was allegedly hit by a Chinese fishing boat last Sunday near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea. Crewmen of the Filipino fishing boat claimed they were anchored when the incident occurred, and the bigger vessel immediately left the scene, officials said.
“We denounce the actions of the Chinese fishing vessel for immediately leaving the incident scene, abandoning the 22 Filipino crewmen to the mercy of the elements,” Lorenzana said in a statement. “We condemn in the strongest terms the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew. This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people.”
He said that a Vietnamese ship picked up the Filipino fishermen, and then turned them over to the military’s command based in the western island of Palawan, facing the West Philippine Sea, the name used by Manila for the South China Sea. Recto Bank is internationally known as Reed Bank, and lies northeast of the Spratly Islands.
“We thank the captain and crew of the Vietnamese vessel, for saving the lives of the 22 Filipino crew,” Lorenzana said.
He called for a formal investigation and for diplomatic steps to be taken to prevent a repeat of the incident.
The incident occurred weeks after the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative released a report saying that a fleet of Chinese boats, including dozens of small fishing vessels accompanied by larger ships, had been captured by satellite imagery gathering clams near the disputed sea region, destroying the area’s marine ecosystem.
The Philippine government had also earlier protested the presence of more than 200 Chinese ships from January to March this year off the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island), also in the South China Sea.
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the region.
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. China, however, ignored the ruling.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected two months before the tribunal issued its decision, has instead tightened bilateral ties with Beijing, distancing his government from traditional Western allies, such as the United States.
The report of the collision came as the Philippines marked its 121st Independence Day celebration. Around 300 protesters demonstrated outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila, chanting slogans while carrying anti-China banners urging Beijing to leave the South China Sea.
The demonstrators also hoisted signs that read “Defend Philippine sovereignty,” before they dispersed. Police said there were no reports of untoward incidents.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, a member of the opposition bloc, denounced "the inhumane and cruel act of abandoning 22 human lives in the high seas."
"No self respecting nation in the world will stay meek and docile in the face of such cruelty and aggression," he told reporters, as he urged the government to file a diplomatic protest.
Fellow senator Joel Villanueva, who belongs to a coalition supporting Duterte, described the incident as a "huge insult" to the Philippines.
"The incident shows the need for greater accountability and enforcement of international law in the West Philippine Sea," Villanueva told reporters.