Much loose talk over Phl boat sinking in WPS

No doubt it is a serious matter that should be urgently and carefully resolved, through the appropriate international mechanisms and provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), between the governments of the Philippines and China.

The matter pertains to the sinking of a Philippine vessel around midnight on June 9, initially reported to be the result of a “collision” between it and a suspected Chinese vessel. The Filipino fishing boat was then anchored near Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea. It sank but the Chinese vessel sailed away, abandoning the 22 Filipino crew in their state of distress.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was the first administration official to issue a public statement on the incident. He condemned the “cowardly action” of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew, and called for an investigation and diplomatic action. “This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people,” he said. Lorenzana thanked the crew of a Vietnamese fishing boat who later rescued the Filipino fishers.

The flurry of statements subsequently emanating from the Duterte government as reported in the press yesterday, both on the incident and the varied suggestions for action from many sources, however, appear to have been issued pell mell and portray no cohesive policy direction.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said that, “taking the cue” from Lorenzana, he had “fired off” a diplomatic protest to China on Wednesday as he flew on a mission to Geneva. He didn’t specify to whom, or which office, he addressed the protest. But he also said he was responding to a suggestion by Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV that the DFA refer the incident to the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization “to help us know exactly what happened so we could provide the appropriate response.”

Locsin’s Twitter message then went on to say: “What did not prevent what the Chinese vessel did to our Filipino fishermen was the politeness to the point of servility and subservience that I threw away when I came in with my foreign policy of friend to friends, enemy to enemies, and worse enemy to false friends.” (It’s up to the reader to interpret what he means by that.)

Next day, though, the Philippine STAR reported Locsin as stressing there is no proof yet if the Chinese had intentionally hit the Filipino fishing boat (as alleged by the boat owner when interviewed by media). The reported “collision,” he said, was “presumably an ‘allision’ or bumping of two vessels, one of which was stationary. Ramming is another thing altogether, requiring proof of intentionality. So far as I know none of us is a mind reader, not least because some of us have no mind with which to read another.”

Also, rejecting a netizen’s suggestion that the Philippines seek the help of the international community to make the Chinese accountable for the Recto Bank incident, top diplomat Locsin caustically replied: “F*** the international community. It can be bought. This is our fight and in the end ours alone.” One would have thought it was Duterte making that statement; of course he is Duterte’s alter ego.

President Duterte, officially the prime articulator of foreign policy, hasn’t (up to this writing) uttered anything. However, his spokesperson Salvador Panelo reportedly said the President was outraged. The spokesperson remarked: “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.”

Egged on by reporters to state what the government would do if the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat would turn out to have been intentional, Panelo replied: “We want to find out first. If it is intentional, it is an act of aggression… We will cut off diplomatic relations.”

Locsin wasn’t as bold or reckless as to make such a categorical statement. On whether the action of the captain and crew of the Chinese vessel should be considered as the act of the Chinese government, he was quoted in another newspaper as saying:

“My people in Manila [at the DFA] think we should tread a bit more carefully over something maybe between private parties, although clearly one at fault twice over [hitting the Filipino fishing boat and abandoning the Filipino crew when the boat sank]. But in the context of swarming over several years, we can take it a little farther.”

Moreover, Locsin hasn’t called on the Chinese ambassador in the country to comment on the incident. It was Panelo who said he had communicated with Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua and the latter had texted him that “they’re seriously and cautiously investigating the case” and that the people of China “share your concerns about fishermen.” He even shared with journalists Zhao’s text message, which said in part: “If it were true that it was [a] Chinese fishing boat which did it, they would be duly educated and punished for their irresponsible behavior. Incidents happen even in the best regulated family. We hope this incident could be held in a proper context.”

A foreign press agency has quoted China’s foreign ministry spokesperson as describing the incident as “an ordinary maritime traffic accident” and insinuated it was irresponsible for the Philippines to “politicize the incident without verification.” However, the spokesperson added: “If the relevant reports are true, regardless of the country from which the perpetrator came from, their behavior should be condemned.”

Meantime, the Philippine Coast Guard is cautious on attributing the boat sinking to the Chinese, even as the AFP Western Command (Wescom) has already tagged the Chinese as the culprits based on their initial investigation. The Wescom spokesman said the captain of the Filipino fishing boat and the rescued fishermen had confirmed it was a Chinese ship that figured in the incident.

The Coast Guard said it would still verify the initial report and conduct an investigation. “At this point, [the] report that a Chinese vessel rammed a Filipino fishing boat is just an allegation,” said the PCG spokesman. “We would check all angles and we would come out with solid evidence,” he added.

It may take a while before we can get a full picture of what really happened within Recto Bank (which is part of the Philippines’ extended economic zone), and what definitive step or steps the Duterte government would ultimately take. But it would seem harder now to resort again to reticence, as in earlier proven incidents of Chinese incursions.

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Published in Philippine Star
June 15, 2019

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