DFA: Duterte might discuss Recto Bank incident at Asean

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star
DFA: Duterte might discuss Recto Bank incident at Asean
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Junever Mahilum-West said the Philippines may be allowed an “opening” to discuss the matter during the exchange of views on regional developments.
KJ Rosales

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte might raise the Recto Bank issue at the coming summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Thailand as part of talks on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, a ranking foreign affairs official said yesterday.

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Junever Mahilum-West said the Philippines may be allowed an “opening” to discuss the matter during the exchange of views on regional developments.

The Philippines is coordinator of the ASEAN-China dialogue partnership from 2018 to 2021.

“And in these negotiations, incidents like what happened to our fishermen will be among those on the agenda, during the negotiations,” Mahilum-West said.

“During the exchange of views on regional developments, there is an opening to raise these issues. Because incidents like what happened emphasizes the importance of having a Code of Conduct so that we could avoid, we could prevent these incidents from happening in the future,” she said. 

At midnight on June 9, a Filipino fishing boat capsized after being rammed by a Chinese vessel in the vicinity of Recto Bank.

But instead of rescuing the 22 fishermen, the Chinese vessel hurriedly sailed away. A Vietnamese fishing boat rescued the Filipinos hours later.

Mahilum-West said the secretaries of foreign affairs, trade and industry, social welfare and development, finance, transportation, tourism and agriculture will accompany President Duterte to the summit slated for June 22-23.

The summit theme for this year is “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability.”

This will be the President’s third visit to Thailand since assuming office. His previous visits were in November 2016 and March 2017. The President will leave Thailand on June 24.

As the administration continues to downplay the Recto Bank incident, a senior military official said they would continue to perform their mandate as protector of the people, but would abide by whatever instruction is given to them by the President. 

The official also said the President, despite his initial silence on the issue, is doing his best to address the concerns of the fishermen.

“He is our commander-in-chief. All our actions pertaining to this issue will now hinge on this presidential directive,” the security official said.

In his speech at the 121st anniversary of the Philippine Navy on Monday at Sangley Point in Cavite, the President said he would never dispatch “gray ships” to Recto Bank or anywhere in the West Philippine Sea just because of “a little maritime accident.” His remarks drew widespread indignation, especially among the fishermen who figured in the June 9 incident.

The security official said that despite the President’s statement, the military will continue its “air and maritime domain awareness operations” especially in the West Philippine Sea.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo has been designated as the one authorized to speak on the issue. He said this was agreed upon during a Cabinet cluster meeting on Monday.

Another senior security official, who asked not to be named, explained that the President had never absolved the Chinese of any wrongdoing as he would rather wait for the official investigation to finish before making his next move.

“While parroting China’s line that the Recto Bank maritime mishap was just a ‘little maritime accident’, he (the President) did not contradict the initial findings that the Chinese vessel was at fault and its captain abandoned the 22 fishermen after his vessel hit and sank the Filipino boat, which is a clear a violation of the International Rules of the Road,” he said.

In an interview over ANC News, boat skipper Junel Insigne expressed sadness over Duterte’s downplaying the Recto Bank incident.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Navy said it is deploying six newly repaired and upgraded warships to patrol the country’s territorial waters.

The upgraded vessels that would be assigned to Palawan-based Naval Forces West (Navforwest), Naval Forces Central (NavforCentral) in Cebu and Zamboanga City-based Naval Forces Western Mindanao (Navforwest) are the BRP Magat Salamat (Patrol Ship 20), BRP Emilio Jacinto (PS35), BRP Apolinario Mabini (PS36), BRP Quezon (PS70), BRP Jose Loor Sr (Patrol Craft 390) and BRP Alberto Navarette (PC 394).

“I am confident that your Navy is now strong and credible and may very well perform its mandated mission to secure the sovereignty of our nation and protect the 7,600 islands,” Navy chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad said in a speech at Monday’s Navy anniversary.            – With Jaime Laude

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