Just before midnight on June 9, a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and partially sank a wooden Filipino fishing boat, the F/B Gem-Vir 1, then anchored at Reed Bank in the South China Sea.
After the collision, the Chinese vessel reportedly turned off its signal lights and sailed away as the Filipino boat sank. The 22 Filipino fishers were forced to leave their boat and struggled to keep themselves afloat for more than six hours before being rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the vicinity.
The collision is the latest, and most serious, in a series of incidents that have shaken the Philippines-China rapprochement forged under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Immediately, on June 12, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana criticized the Chinese for abandoning the Filipino fishermen to the mercy of the sea, saying, “the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel that abandoned the Filipino fishermen is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people.” He called for a formal investigation of the incident and appealed to authorities to take the appropriate diplomatic steps.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also denounced the Chinese fishing vessel’s action of leaving the Filipino fishermen to the elements as “contemptible and condemnable.” He called for “a hard and serious punitive action by the Chinese leadership against the Chinese crew responsible for the cowardly act leaving the distressed Filipino fishermen in the water “to convince the Philippines of a real friendly relationship between the two people.”
On June 14, the Department of Foreign Affairs filed a formal diplomatic protest over the incident.
A day earlier, the Chinese foreign ministry had dismissively called the encounter “an ordinary maritime traffic accident.” Spokesperson Geng Shuang castigated the Philippines for politicizing the incident without verification.
Philippine Navy Vice-Admiral Robert Emperdrad responded by insisting that the incident was not an accident. He explained, “the Filipino boat was anchored. Based on the international rules of the road, it had the privilege because it could not evade an incoming ship. So the boat was rammed. This is not a normal incident.”
Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio made the a strongest criticism against China as he insisted that the Reed Bank incident was likely an operation by the Chinese maritime militia designed to drive away Filipino fishing boats from the Spratly Islands, similar to the way China treats Vietnamese fishing in the Paracels.
In a June 14 statement, Carpio argued that ordinary fishing vessels would not engage in ramming of other boats for fear of damaging their own vessels. He noted that Chinese militia vessels often loiter near Philippine-occupied Thitu Island and other features in the Spratlys to intimidate the Filipino occupants of those features but called the ramming of the Gem-Vir 1 a “quantum escalation of China’s aggressive acts against the Philippines.”
Crisis in the appeasement policy
The vocal and usually outspoken Duterte, however, was conspicuously silent about the Reed Bank incident. Opposition politicians urged him to take a stronger stand against China by recalling the Philippine ambassador from Beijing to show how serious he was in defending both the country’s maritime rights over Reed Bank as well as the lives of Filipino fisherfolk.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo defended Duterte’s silence, saying that he was just being cautious. There is no doubt that Duterte needs to be cautious about this latest maritime incident; a single inflammatory statement from him will untangle the increasingly fragile Philippines-China rapprochement that he has painstakingly established since he became president in mid-2016.
The Reed Bank collision follows a series of worrying incidents that have put domestic pressure on the Duterte administration to take a tougher line on China.
In late July 2018, the Philippine government expressed its concern to China over the increase in offensive radio warnings against Philippine aircraft and ships operating near Chinese-held features in the South China Sea.
On Aug. 15, 2018, Duterte criticized China for its island-building activities and called on it to temper its behavior in the South China Sea. In early April 2019, the DFA filed a diplomatic protest with China over the presence of more than two hundred suspected militia vessels around Thitu Island.
Salvaging the appeasement policy?
The captain of the ill-fated Gem-Vir 1 confirmed the PN navy chief’s account that the incident was deliberate since the crew of the Chinese vessel saw his fishing vessel before the collision.
Ship captain Jonnel Insigne said that the Chinese vessel turned its lights on seconds before it rammed the Gem-Vir 1 and fled the scene with its lights off after the smaller and wooden Filipino boat began to sink with all its catch and equipment. He told reporters that they thought the Chinese would pick them out of the water after their boat sank but they left the Filipinos alone in the dark waters.
After interviewing the 22 Filipino fishermen, the DFA confirmed that an investigation of the incident was ongoing but intelligence reports were “confident” that the Philippine boat was stationary when it was hit by the Chinese vessel.”
On June 17, however, Duterte declared that the sinking of the Gem-Vir 1 as a “little maritime accident.” Echoing the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement, he downplayed the incident as “a small incident between two boats.” His statement effectively contradicted those made by his defense secretary, the PN flag officer, the captain of the Gem-Ver 1, and the owner of the Vietnamese fishing vessel that rescued the distressed Filipino fishermen, all of whom saw the sinking of the Gem-Vir 1 in a very different light.
This reflected his decision to defend his fragile rapprochement with China over respect to customary international law, upholding his country’s territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea, and the safety and well-being of ordinary Filipino fisherfolk.