Recto Bank incident on ‘cusp of closure,’ says PH envoy to China

Sofia Tomacruz
Recto Bank incident on ‘cusp of closure,’ says PH envoy to China
Ambassador Jose Santiago Sta Romana says while the apology is a 'breakthrough,' compensation for the aggrieved 22 fishermen of Gem-Ver is still subject to more discussions and negotiations

MANILA, Philippines – With the public apology of the owner of the Chinese ship that sank a Philippine fishing boat in the West Philippine Sea in June, the Philippines considered the incident one step closer to being fully settled.

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta Romana said the apology of the Chinese ship owner was a “breakthrough” and helped to improve the atmosphere for discussions between Beijing and Manila during President Rodrigo Duterte’s official visit to China that began on Thursday, August 29.

“In a sense we’re near – we are on the cusp of closure. There’s still the compensation issue, but generally speaking, I think we have made a breakthrough,” Sta Romana told reporters in a press conference in Beijing on Thursday.

“This apology of course represents the ship owner but in a sense, through diplomatic discussion the Chinese side, we have made it clear that this had a negative impact; an adverse impact on the bilateral relations, particularly on China’s image. One way to correct this was through what you’ve seen…. So we welcome this development,” he added.

The ramming and sinking of fishing boat Gem-Ver has been the most heated issue in the West Philippine Sea since the Scarborough Shoal standoff in April 2012 that prompted the Philippines to file a historic case against China. The Philippines won that case.

As Duterte was preparing to leave for China on Wednesday, August 28, the Chinese boat’s owner issued an apology through a letter relayed to the Department of Foreign Affairs. The  Philippines promptly accepted the apology made over two months since the incident.

Public apology needed: According to Sta Romana, verbal apologies for the sinking of Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver were given by Chinese officials early in June but “it was clear to us, not only from the President but the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, that what we want is a public formal apology.”

“Written not verbal – and that’s what took a bit of time…. What we didn’t want is they tell us and we tell the public. We wanted them to explain to the Filipino people,” Sta Romana said.

Days after the Chinese ship abandoned Gem-Ver and its fishermen at sea, several Philippine officials such as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and former foreign secretaryAlbert del Rosario said the Chinese should apologize and pay compensation to the Philippines for the incident.

“We didn’t consider this resolved yet or closed yet because we didn’t have a public apology…. We thought it was necessary for the Chinese boat owner to explain it himself,” Sta Romana said.

The Philippines, Sta Romana said, also considered the incident “settled in terms of it was not a ramming incident. It was an accident. The Chinese provided their expalnation, they did not see that night.”

“It doesn’t exclude them from responsibility. It’s a subject for further discussion in the sense that how do we avoid this in the future?…. They have accepted it was a mistake to also abandon. What is clear is we want that to be avoided,” he said.

As for the Chinese government itself, Sta Romana said apologies for the incident were made through diplomatic channels.

Compensation to take time: Meanwhile, compensation for the aggrieved fishermen of Gem-Ver and its owners were still subject to more “discussion and negotiations.”

In its apology to the Filipino fishermen, the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association which the Chinese boat belongs to, requested that the Philippines claim damages for losses related to the sinking of Gem-Ver.

Sta Romana said procedures on how to go about securing damages were still to be studied and that the justice department, along with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, would possibly play a role in this.

Earlier estimates of the Department of Agriculture and the boat’s owners showed the incident has led to the loss of some P2.2 million. (READ: Gem-Ver owner, fishermen unsatisfied with China ship owner’s apology) – Rappler.com

 

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.