South China Sea
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A protester outside the Chinese consulate in Manila calls for China to leave Philippine waters. Photo: AP

Philippine defence chief urges ‘diplomatic protest’ after Chinese vessel sinks fishing boat in disputed waters

  • A Filipino craft anchored near Recto Bank – claimed by both Manila and Beijing – sank on Sunday
  • Its 22 crewmen were left ‘to the mercy of the elements’, according to Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana
The Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana will recommend Manila file a strongly worded diplomatic protest after a fishing boat was hit in the disputed South China Sea by a suspected Chinese vessel that then abandoned the 22 Filipino fishermen as their boat sank.

Lorenzana condemned the sinking of the F/B Gimver 1 on Sunday night due to the collision at Reed Bank off the western Philippine province of Palawan and the abandonment of its Filipino crew.

Lorenzana has sought an investigation of the sinking and said the rescued Filipino crewmen identified the vessel that hit them as Chinese.

“A strongly worded diplomatic protest is in order,” he said on Thursday.

Philippines Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana. Photo: EPA
The boat hit the anchored F/B GIMVER 1 on Sunday near Recto Bank – claimed by both Manila and Beijing – causing it to sink and leaving the crewmen “to the mercy of the elements”, Lorenzana said on Wednesday.
Although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has largely set aside the bitter dispute with Beijing over the resource-rich waterway, Manila does sometimes protest against Chinese action.

“We denounce the actions of the Chinese fishing vessel for immediately leaving the incident [and] abandoning the 22 Filipino crewmen,” Lorenzana said in a statement. “This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people.”

Lorenzana thanked the captain and crew of a Vietnamese fishing vessel who came to the Filipino fishermen’s rescue, and called for an investigation into the collision, adding that “diplomatic steps” should be taken to prevent a repeat of the incident.

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However, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Armand Balilo told reporters the offending vessel’s origin had not yet been verified.

“We are waiting for the Filipino fishermen to come back so we can talk to them. We cannot immediately say that the other vessel is Chinese,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr said on Twitter from Geneva that the abandonment of the stricken crew was both “contemptible and condemnable”, adding that the incident would form “the basis of enhanced … military cooperation” between the Philippines and Vietnam.

Both countries have partial claims over the South China Sea, where Beijing has staked “indisputable sovereignty” and built artificial islands with military facilities and airstrips.

Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the area.

Competing claims over the sea are a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it, and rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath its waters.

Recto, or Reed Bank is about 150km off the Philippine island of Palawan and within Manila’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone – far from China’s nearest major land mass.

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Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Economic Reform in Quezon City, said the incident – the first since the Philippines protested the presence of more than 200 Chinese ships off Philippine-occupied Thitu Island, also known as Pagasa, earlier this year – will not affect ties between Manila and Beijing.

“This is not a problem between both countries’ coastguards and navies. There were shortcomings on the part of the Chinese fishermen because they abandoned the Filipino crew,” he said.

“But it depend on the circumstances. It should be handled in the context of negotiation. I don’t think it will prove to be a major incident … though there will be those who will agitate for that.”

Protesters burn a mock Chinese flag during a rally outside the Chinese consulate in Manila. Photo: AP

In 2011, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of harassing an exploration vessel off Recto Bank.

Manila won a key international ruling in 2016 against China’s claims in the waterway, but Beijing rejected the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision and Duterte opted to set it aside to attract Chinese investment and trade.

“I love China … but it behooves upon us to ask, ‘is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean’?” he asked.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press