In this June 2019 photo, the Filipino crew of fishing boat F/B GemVir 1, involved in the allision incident near Recto Bank, are being briefed at the Coast Guard sub station in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro.
Philippine envoy says Chinese ship owner's sorry doesn't excuse abandonment of Filipino fishermen
Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - August 29, 2019 - 5:19pm

BEIJING, China — The apology by the owner of the Chinese ship that hit and sank a Philippine boat near Recto (Reed) Bank last June does not remove responsibility for the abandonment of Filipino fishermen who were afloat for three hours before they were rescued by another vessel, an envoy said Monday.  

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said the Recto Bank incident is "on the cusp of a closure" but the compensation for 22 Filipino fishermen and the accountability of the Chinese ship crew would be subject to further discussions. 

"It (apology) does not excuse them for their responsibility. Their responsibility includes that by the way, the fact that they did not rescue our fishermen. And it is something that a subject for further discussion in the sense that how do we avoid this in the future," Sta. Romana said in a press briefing here. 

"I think we have made a breakthrough. This apology of course represents the ship owner. But in a sense, I think through diplomatic discussions with the Chinese side we have made it clear that this had a negative impact, had an adverse impact on the bilateral relations particularly on Chinese image," he added.

READ: Chinese official apologized verbally for Recto Bank collision — Philippine envoy

Sta. Romana said the incident's negative impact on the ties between the two countries could be corrected through a public explanation by the Chinese ship owner, an investigation, and an apology. The envoy revealed that the Philippines had insisted that the Chinese ship owner issue a public apology for the incident. He said the public apology by the Chinese ship owner was a result of an "intense negotiations" between the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese foreign ministry and the two countries' embassies. 

"But it was clear to us that not only from the president but also from the secretary of foreign affairs, he made it clear what we want is a public formal apology, written not verbal. And that’s what took a bit of time," Sta. Romana said. 

"What we didn’t want was, you know, they’ll tell me I’m sorry and then I’ll be the one to tell the Filipino, he said I’m sorry. We wanted them to explain to the Filipino people. And that I think that’s why we wanted something not in the name of DFA or not in the name of the result of the discussion," he added. 

READ: Robredo gives Gem-Ver 1 crew P50,000 each

Sta. Romana said the Chinese government had requested that it be allowed to send a delegation to visit the fishermen of the sunken boat F/B Gem-Ver 1. The two countries did not have further discussions on the request because "the atmosphere was just not too favorable" that time, he added. 

Not yet off the hook?

Asked if the owner and crew of the Chinese ship are not yet off the hook, Sta. Romana replied: "I have to consult my legal advisers on this issue."

Pressed if the issuance of apology can be viewed as an admission of guilt, the ambassador did not give a direct answer. 

"Well, they accepted responsibility. As to the nuance whether you go into legal niceties here, I'd rather stick to what they said. They accepted the major share of responsibility," Sta. Romana said.

READ: Boat captain dismayed over Duterte's remarks on Recto Bank collision

Sta. Romana said the fact that the Chinese foreign ministry was "deeply involved" in the discussions means that it shares the "moral responsibility" for the incident.

"But the specific responsibility is that of the fishing boat. In other words, they actually facilitated the investigation and exchange of results. So the Chinese government cooperated," he added. 

Sta. Romana said the Chinese had expressed willingness to compensate "very early on but again, verbally." 

"But we knew compensation was probably the least of the issues given China’s standard of living and their economy. It was really the issue of the apology and the responsibility. Even the accepting their major responsibility that was pretty early on on a verbal basis. And so but we wanted, you know, to clear the air," he said. 

"On the compensation, this is a matter that will have to be studied because they are procedural. But we will probably proceed and try to help out the fishermen and... owner in the Philippines. And the question is how to quantify all this. So you obviously need expert advice," he added. 

READ: Palace: No contradiction in Duterte's remarks, Coast Guard report

Sta. Romana said the Chinese owner had maintained that the ship crew did not mean to abandon the Filipino fishermen on board the sunken boat. 

"There are additional details like...they heard the shouts for help but they couldn’t understand the language and they were overcome by fear. And then that they reported instead to the fishing authorities of China that what happened as they were leaving," Sta. Romana said.  

"Maybe they should have reported to our fishing authorities or to all - a body that will notify all the literal countries. I think if they knew they were Filipinos maybe it would have been a different story," he added. 

READ: 'How?' Duterte asks amid call to keep Chinese out of Philippine EEZ

A memorandum from the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association, a group which counts the owner of the Chinese fishing boat as one of its members, claimed that the incident near Recto Bank last June 9 was caused by an "unintentional mistake."

Recto bank is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, where the country has sovereign rights. The DFA has filed a diplomatic protest over the incident, which placed on spotlight anew the Duterte administration's policy on China and the West Philippine Sea dispute. 

“It was fortunate that there were no casualties. I feel deep regret that this accident had to happen and I would like to express my deep sympathy to the Filipino fishermen,” the memorandum read.

“The shipowner of the Chinese fishing boat involved, through our association, would like to express his sincere apology to the Filipino fishermen."

READ: Captain of boat sank by Chinese forgoes Duterte meeting

President Rodrigo Duterte previously described the sinking of the Filipino boat as a "little maritime incident" that does not constitute an attack on Philippine sovereignty.

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