What we know so far: Sinking of Filipino fishing boat in West Philippine Sea

Patricia Lourdes Viray - Philstar.com
What we know so far: Sinking of Filipino fishing boat in West Philippine Sea
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called out the "cowardly action" of a suspected Chinese trawler for immediately leaving after hitting and sinking a Filipino fishing vessel in the West Philippine Sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuan, meanwhile, called that incident "an ordinary maritime traffic accident."
IISS / Released | FMPRC / Released

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine government had condemned the abandonment of a suspected Chinese trawler after hitting a Filipino fishing boat in the West Philippine Sea on June 9.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, accused the Philippines of being irresponsible for "politicizing" the incident without verification as neither Beijing nor Manila confirmed that the offending vessel was Chinese-flagged.

Here's what we know so far:

DND, Palace seeks investigation into collision near Recto Bank

On June 12, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana released a statement about the reported collision between a Chinese and Filipino vessel near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea.

The collision sank Filipino vessel F/B GIMVER 1, which was anchored and stationary when it was hit by the suspected Chinese vessel.

A Vietnamese fishing vessel, which was in the area, rescued the 22 Filipino crew after about six hours since the offending vessel rammed the Filipino boat.

"However, we condemn in the strongest terms the cowardly action of the suspected Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew. This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people," Lorenzana said.

Lorenzana called for an investigation into the incident and for diplomatic steps to be taken.

Malacañang also called out the Chinese fishing vessel for leaving the scene of the incident as it violates maritime protocols and asked the Chinese government to look into the collision and impose proper sanctions on the Chinese crew.

"Regardless of the nature of the collision, whether it was accidental or intentional, common decency and the dictates of humanity require the immediate saving of the crew of the downed Philippine vessel," presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Thursday.

Military flip-flops on 'accidental' collision

After Lorenzana released his statement Wednesday, the military initially said the incident in the West Philippine Sea was "far from accidental."

Lt. Col. Stephen Penetrante, acting spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command, said the suspected Chinese vessel should have stopped to rescue the distressed Filipino crew.

"After the collision, the Chinese vessel immediately left, ran away, it's like a hit-and-run," Penetrante said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Asked if there was evidence that the ship that hit the Filipino boat was Chinese, Penetrante said the witnesses have identified the offending party.

According to Penetrante, the Filipino fishermen were able to identify the Chinese ship as they were very near even if the incident occurred at midnight.

The Wescom, through a joint task force, will conduct an inquiry into the incident in order to document the evidence for possible filing of diplomatic complaints, Penetrante said.

"If you will look at the incident report, there was intentionality. They did not stop," the Wescom spokesman said.

A day after making these pronouncements, the Wescom released a statement indicating that initial reports showed that "a certain Chinese vessel accidentally collided with a Filipino fishing boat." This information was from the boat captain of FB 076

Coast Guard unsure of offending vessel

While Lorenzana appeared to be sure that the offending vessel was Chinese-flagged, the Philippine Coast Guard said there is a possibility that it might be Vietnamese.

"We are still checking because the claim is that was a Chinese vessel, some are saying it was Vietnamese," PCG spokesman Capt. Armand Balilo said Wednesday.

The PCG is checking all watercraft that passed through the area at the time of the incident to verify reports.

Balilo added that they are still waiting for the Filipino fishermen to return to get their statements as they were not able to see the bow number of the vessel that hit their boat.

The 22 Filipino crew of F/B GIMVER 1 are expected to arrive in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro on Friday.

DFA files diplomatic protest

The military has yet to gather evidence for possible diplomatic action but the Philippines' top diplomat already made his move.

On Thursday morning, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. confirmed that he had already filed a diplomatic protest.

"Thanks, meanwhile I fired off a diplomatic protest yesterday," Locsin tweeted in response to the recommendation of Sen. Antonio Trillanes to refer the incident to the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization.

In a separate tweet, Locsin earlier said he will take his cue from Lorenzana.

China downplays sinking of Filipino vessel

Malacañang called the abandonment of the distressed Filipino fishermen as "inhuman" and "barbaric" but Beijing said it was "an ordinary maritime traffic accident."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said China was still investigating the incident.

"If the relevant reports are true, regardless of the country from which the perpetrator came from, their behavior should be condemned," Geng said Thursday.

Not the first time a Philippine boat was sunk

This would not be the first time that a Chinese vessel sinks a Filipino boat as a similar incident occurred a few years ago.

According to the PCG, a Chinese cargo vessel hit a Filipino fishing boat in Zambales in 2013. The incident, however, was not intentional, Balilo said.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, warned that China has a record of sinking foreign vessels in the South China Sea, part of which is the West Phillippine Sea.

In an interview with ABS-CBN's "Bandila" Thursday night, Batongbacal said Chinese units had been downing Vietnamese vessels in the disputed waters.

"That's why our concern is that this will not be replicated on our side in the West Philippine Sea," Batongbacal said in Filipino.

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