SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 21, 2019 - 12:00am

The maritime incident near Recto Bank will soon be resolved – with the Philippines apologizing to China for causing trouble.

That was the joke yesterday following the amendment of the Filipino fishing boat captain’s story of what happened on June 9. This was after Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol distributed cash assistance and 11 fishing boats to the 22 crewmembers of the Gem-Vir (GemVer) boat in their home province of Occidental Mindoro.

Piñol yesterday denied bribing or scaring the captain to change his narrative and apologize to President Duterte. The agriculture chief, who became the subject of nasty jokes, stressed that several of the other fishermen had not changed their stories about what happened.

With the Philippine government amenable to a joint investigation with China, however, a number of those who believed the fishermen’s original narration of events have simply shifted to the national pastime of jumping to conclusions, giving up on any formal probe.

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The Chinese government has a point: Beijing is enjoying the best of ties with Manila, thanks to the friendship offered by President Duterte. Why should China jeopardize those ties by having its vessel deliberately ram a Filipino fishing boat?

Unfortunately for bilateral ties, there are possible answers to that “why” – foremost of which is that Chinese maritime militias are on a mission to enforce their nine-dash-line claim over nearly the entire South China Sea, and the Philippines is in the way.

The claimed area includes Recto or Reed Bank off Occidental Mindoro, over which the Philippines was awarded sovereign rights by the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.

In accordance with that ruling, the Philippines has exclusive economic rights over Recto Bank. Chinese boats aren’t even supposed to be there, although of course Beijing does not recognize the arbitral court ruling even if it is a signatory to UNCLOS.

That “why” also does not address the abandonment of the Filipino fishermen in the water after their boat was hit. Beijing has retracted its initial claim that the Chinese ship had fled to avoid a swarm of other Filipino vessels in the area. Even without the satellite images belying this story, the narrative still stretched credulity. If there was indeed such a swarm, why did it take four hours for the fishermen to be rescued – and by a Vietnamese boat? (The Vietnamese weren’t supposed to be in our economic zone either, but Filipinos are grateful that they were.)

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A joke that went around last Tuesday was that the 22 Filipino fishermen might soon be included in the matrix of individuals supposedly plotting to oust President Duterte. This was fueled by Duterte’s statement that critics considered to be dismissive of the plight of the 22 fishermen.

Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo has a point in stressing that conflicting statements must be reconciled, especially on such a diplomatically sensitive issue as this one. Panelo seems impressively prescient; certain details in the fishermen’s story that he questioned were among those that were changed the next day in the Gem-Vir captain’s narrative.

Malacañang may want to pay attention to public sentiment about a Chinese invasion of sorts. All over Metro Manila, Chinese enclaves are sprouting, with buildings rapidly being constructed for online gaming activities, supported by grocery stores and Chinese-only dining places.

Being part-Chinese, I should be glad to see my mainland “cousins” swarming (that word again) all over Metro Manila. But this does not stop a Filipino like me from questioning the cousins’ exclusivity and disregard for the requirements of doing business in my country.

Now they are not only disregarding our sovereign rights over Recto Bank, but also (if the original Gem-Vir story is accurate) leaving our fishermen to the mercy of sharks.

On Wednesday, passions were tempered by reports of the Philippines’ official response to the incident: Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddyboy Locsin had brought it to the attention of the United Nations in New York, during a gathering to mark the anniversary of UNCLOS.

Locsin said abandoning people in distress at sea was a “felony” and a contravention of UNCLOS, to which both the Philippines and China are signatories.

Panelo, who has been previously contradicted by Locsin, said the next day that abandonment at sea is OK if the potential rescuers themselves face threats. But Beijing has already retracted the story of the Chinese vessel fleeing because it was “swarmed” by Filipino boats.

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Prof. Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, says he has reached out to his friends from the Chinese mainland following the Recto Bank incident.

Facing us on “The Chiefs” this week on Cignal TV’s One News channel, Banlaoi stressed that the two countries have many areas of cooperation that must not be jeopardized by the Recto Bank incident.

But at the same time, he said, “we want accountability, we want compensation for the fishermen, and we want the (Chinese) activities to stop.”

Will the crew of the Chinese fishing boat be penalized? Will they be hailed as heroes by Beijing for staking their claim in Recto Bank? Will they be promoted in the Chinese People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia?

The US Defense Department’s 2018 annual report submitted to Congress notes that this militia, placed some months ago under the Chinese military, is unique in the world, carrying out “confrontational operations short of war” in pursuit of Beijing’s geopolitical objectives in the waters around China.

After initially renting small boats from private fishing firms, Beijing decided to build its own ships with built-in arsenals for its maritime militia. Banlaoi said the provincial government in Hainan now has 84 of these vessels.

One of those vessels is believed to have hit the Gem-Vir.

What would Chinese accountability entail? Banlaoi replied: an apology from the Chinese boat crew and their identification, so that Filipinos will know how Beijing would deal with them.

“I tell my Chinese friends it’s triggering our patriotism,” Banlaoi said. “It’s uniting us.”

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