MANILA (2nd UPDATE)—Beijing on Thursday played down the incident involving a Chinese fishing boat that collided with a Philippine vessel and left 22 Filipino fishermen abandoned in the disputed South China Sea.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said it was an “ordinary maritime accident” and he warned against “irresponsibly politicizing” the collision.
He said China is investigating the incident.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said China’s ambassador Zhao Jinhua told him that “they are seriously and cautiously investigating the case.”
Panelo later shared to media the full text message of Zhao:
“The fishing boat issue is being thoroughly and seriously investigated. We share your concerns about fishermen. If it were true that it was Chinese fishing boat which did it, they would be duely 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.”
Panelo added that government will take further action, including the possible withdrawal of diplomats in China, if it’s not satisfied with Beijing’s response.
“Kung hindi tayo kontento di next step tayo. Magkakaroon ng dagdag na galaw ang ating gobyerno,” he told radio DZMM.
(If we’re not satisfied then we move on to the next step. Government will make further action.)
“Well, tingnan mo ‘yung ginawa natin sa Canada, ‘yun basura lang ‘yun pero si Presidente galit na galit du’n. Di ba ni-recall natin ang mga ambassador natin?”
(Look at what we did to Canada. That was only a garbage issue, but President Rodrigo Duterte was furious. We recalled our ambassadors.)
Panelo, however, said government is confident Beijing will soon respond to Manila’s diplomatic protest.
“Nag-text na nga kanina ibig sabihin meron na silang ginagawa (They messaged me earlier which means they’re already doing something),” he said.
“We cannot make reckless statements, kailangan binibigyan natin ng pag-aaral ang bawat galaw (we should study our every move).”
The collision took place near the Reed Bank on Sunday, the Philippine defense ministry said, adding that a Vietnamese fishing boat rescued all the fishermen.
“We denounce the actions of the Chinese fishing vessel for immediately leaving the incident scene, abandoning the 22 Filipino crewmen to the mercy of the elements,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.
Reuters could not independently verify the Philippine account of the collision.
China, which claims nearly all of the South China Sea, has been accused of using thousands of fishing boats as a militia and de facto extension of its foreign policy.
The Reed Bank contains offshore gas reserves that both countries claim ownership of, despite it being located within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Both countries say they are seeking ways to jointly tap those deposits.
Despite a long history of rows with China over the South China Sea, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued warmer ties with Beijing in exchange for billions of pledged loans and investment.
An international arbitration panel in 2016 ruled the Philippines had sovereign rights to exploit the resources at Reed Bank. China did not recognize the case or the verdict.