There is growing anger in the Philippines after a Chinese vessel seemingly rammed a fishing boat in the South China Sea and left its crew to fend for themselves.
A Chinese vessel has sunk a Philippine boat carrying 22 fishermen in an incident in the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine defence department has revealed. The announcement swiftly ignited public anger while posing a new challenge to President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to build closer ties with Beijing.
“A collision between a Chinese and Filipino vessel was reported by Filipino fishermen near the Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea on the evening of June 9, 2019. The collision sank the Filipino vessel,” Delfin Lorenzana, the defence chief, said in an announcement, which coincided with the country’s independence day on Wednesday, June 12.
Lorenzana denounced the incident as a “cowardly action” on the part of the Chinese vessel, which abandoned the crewmen and endangered their lives in the middle of the high seas.
“This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people,” he added, while calling for “diplomatic steps” to address the problem at once.
The Filipino fishermen were later rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel, according to the statement.
On Thursday, Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said abandoning the Filipino fishermen was “inhuman” and “barbaric”. But he only issued the statement following an uproar over the president's silence on the matter for four days.
South China Sea dispute
At the time of the incident, the vessel was reportedly anchored near Reed Bank, within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, as defined by an international court ruling at The Hague.
China rejects the ruling at The Hague, saying it has historical rights over the entirety of the South China Sea. The resource-rich and major naval artery handles a third of global sea trade worth an estimated $5.3bn every year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Reed Bank is a shallow underwater volcanic formation referred to by the Philippine authorities as Recto Bank. The South China Sea is known to Filipinos as the West Philippine Sea.
A Philippine military spokesperson told reporters in Manila that the incident could be “intentional” and “far from accidental”, pointing to the Chinese vessel’s decision to leave the area without giving help to the distressed Filipino crew.
Philippine analysts also insisted that the incident should be referred to as a “boat-ramming” instead of a “collision” since the Filipino boat was stationary in open water in Reed Bank, which has an area of about 8,800 sq km.
“There is no ‘maybe’ here. There can be no doubt that this was deliberate and intentional ramming,” Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert at the University of the Philippines, told TRT World.
“A running person does not accidentally hit another person standing in the middle of an empty football field,” he added.
Teodoro Locsin Jr, the Philippines’ top diplomat, also described it on social media as “contemptible and condemnable”. However, he stopped short of calling it a “boat-ramming”, writing it can only be as such “if we can clearly surmise that was the intention, which is a state of mind.”
He said that he had “fired off” a diplomatic protest to Beijing on Wednesday.
When he came into office in June 2016, Duterte made improving relations with China the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He said that Manila could not afford to confront Beijing militarily. He also brushed aside the country’s historic alliance with China’s rival, the US, visiting China in his first months in office, while pointedly skipping the US.
Since then, China and the Philippines have figured in a number of controversies in the South China Sea. But the incident on June 9 was the first time that Filipino and Chinese vessels came into physical contact in the disputed area.
In April, it was reported that Chinese vessels carried out a “mass harvesting” of clams in Scarborough Shoal, another maritime feature in the South China Sea once administered by the Philippines, but now under Chinese control.
In 2018, it was also revealed that China had constructed “massive” air and naval facilities in the so-called Mischief Reef.
Despite those incidents, the Duterte administration has shown patience with China.
However, the president has also started to make his annoyance to Beijing more public, declaring in May: "I love China... but it behooves upon us to ask, 'is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean'?"
Richard Heydarian, a specialist on Asian geopolitical affairs at Manila’s De La Salle University, said that the timing of the incident “could not be worse” as it happened just days before the Philippine independence day commemoration.
Heydarian said it demonstrates China’s “utter disregard, if not contempt, for the country’s sovereignty and national dignity".
“It also exposes the paucity of Duterte’s ‘naive’ and ill-crafted strategic acquiescence towards China,” he told TRT World.
“I don’t know what else the Filipino leader should observe as evidence, in order to reconsider his misguided China-leaning approach.”
Antonio Trillanes, an opposition senator who once mediated with China over the long-running dispute, warned that the incident could “further escalate tensions” with Beijing.
He called on the two countries to refer the case to the International Maritime Organization.
“This way, a dispassionate, independent and objective investigation would be conducted on the matter and its recommendations would be binding under international law.”
Including the Philippines and China, the dispute in the South China Sea draws in a total of six countries with overlapping claims in the 3.5 million sq km sea.
Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim part of the area.
Meanwhile, Batongbacal, the University of the Philippines maritime law expert, said that the latest incident puts Duterte “in a difficult position”, as he tries to sustain his policy of rapprochement with China.
But he doubts that the Philippine president will confront China “more forcefully”.
“More likely, he will look for a face-saving way out for himself”, taking action that “does not make him appear weak before Filipinos, yet at the same time does not drive a serious wedge between him and Beijing", he said.
“Maybe another investigation will be promised to allow the issue to simmer down and the public to forget.”