MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine President on Monday called the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat that was hit by a Chinese vessel in the disputed South China Sea a “small maritime accident” and called for calm amid a outcry.
Twenty-two crew members aboard the sunk boat were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat.
President Rodrigo Duterte said the incident from June 9 to Reed bank should not be exaggerated and should be investigated, and that the Chinese side should be heard.
Duterte’s reaction contrasted with that of some of his own officials, including the defense chief, who strongly condemned the Chinese vessel for pulling away as the fishing boat sank overnight. The Foreign Ministry filed a diplomatic protest against China.
Duterte has been criticized by nationalists and opposition politicians for his silence days after the incident was made public by the Secretary of Defense. Delfin Lorenzana.
An opposition senator called on the president to degrade diplomatic relations with China, which has been criticized for its aggressive actions in disputed waters.
“It’s just a ship collision, don’t make it worse,” Duterte said in his first public remarks on the incident, adding that he would not come to any conclusions or take action until an investigation. was not finished.
“Let’s not get involved yet,” he told officials and staff at a naval base in Cavite province, south of Manila, on the Philippine Navy’s anniversary.
He warned that the “small maritime accident” could escalate into a larger conflict at a time when the Philippine military is still trying to modernize.
Normally known for his temper and spontaneous outbursts, Duterte this time stressed the importance of handling the incident through the rule of law. He said the politicians who urged him to deploy the Navy in response to the incident were “stupid”, although he did not identify any.
China admitted its fishing boat struck a Philippine boat near Reed Bank, but denied the collision was intentional.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila said on Friday that the Chinese ship accidentally struck the Philippine boat as it attempted to maneuver while surrounded by several other Filipino boats.
He said the Chinese captain tried to save the Filipinos but feared he would be besieged by the other boats.
Filipino fishermen have denied China’s claims and said they would have died if they had not been rescued by the Vietnamese boat.
It was one of the most serious recent incidents in the disputed waters involving fishermen from the Philippines and China, whose ties improved under Duterte.
The Filipino leader decided to mend frayed relationships as he sought Chinese infrastructure, trade and investment funds after taking office in 2016.
Territorial disputes, which also involve Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, have long been seen as a potential flashpoint.