Beijing’s ambassador to the Philippines has reached out to Manila amid diplomatic and bilateral fallout over the sinking of a Filipino boat by a Chinese vessel that left 22 fishermen adrift in the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine president’s spokesman said Friday.
Chinese envoy Zhao Jianhua contacted presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo on Thursday night to say that an investigation was under way in Beijing and sanctions would be swift if it found the Chinese vessel was at fault, according to the Filipino official.
“’The fishing boat issue is being thoroughly and seriously investigated,’” Panelo said, citing from Zhao’s message.
“’We share your concerns about fishermen. If it were true that it was a Chinese fishing boat, they would be duly educated and punished for their irresponsible behavior,’” Panelo added.
According to Panelo, Zhao emphasized that “incidents” happen even in the “best-regulated family.”
“’We hope this incident could be held in a proper context,’” Zhao also told Panelo.
Earlier in the week, Philippine military and defense officials strongly criticized the incident near Recto Bank on June 9. They accused the Chinese fishing boat of ramming the FB Gimber1, which they said was anchored, and sailing off as the Filipino crew waded at sea after their vessel capsized.
A passing Vietnamese boat later picked up the stranded sailors and turned them over to Filipino military authorities in Palawan, an island province in the country’s southwestern region that faces the South China Sea or, as Manila calls it, the West Philippine Sea.
On Friday, Panelo said there should be a need to reassess the government’s mechanism to prevent the situation from happening again, but he did not directly answer questions when reporters asked him if the collision was intentional.
A day earlier, the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest against China over the incident. During the past two days anger in the Philippines has risen over the incident, with politicians crossing party lines to demand an apology from and swift action by China.
The Chinese initially kept mum on the issue but they responded after President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, through Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, expressed anger. The Duterte administration is considered a friend by China.
The president took pains in the past to woo Chinese support and billions of dollars in business pledges from Beijing, when he took office in mid-2016 soon after an international court of arbitration ruled against Beijing and in favor of Manila in a case to do with territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing ignored that ruling. 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.
‘We were bullied’
Romulo Festin, the mayor of San Jose town in Occidental Mindoro, where all the 22 survivors came from, said he believed the Chinese ship deliberately rammed into the Filipino boat.
“We were bullied. In my own view and investigation, it was intentional. They did not even stop to help our people according to reports,” Festin said.
Festin was optimistic that the government would handle the situation well to prevent a repeat of the incident.
“We’ll see how the government will handle this kind of crisis. We have trust in the government. First, our President declared we cannot got to war, so we have to accept that reality,” he said.
The head of the Philippine Navy, Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad, took issue with a comment by China’s foreign ministry that described the incident as “an ordinary maritime traffic accident.”
“We don’t ram ships that are not moving. You can see that in radar. So if it’s not moving, why will you ram it? I don’t know the reason behind it but I don’t consider that as a normal maritime accident,” he said.
Dennis Jay Santos contributed to this report from Davao City, Philippines.