MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel "Manny" Piñol said the sinking of a Filipino boat by a Chinese ship, a first in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), is "just a simple maritime incident" blown "out of proportion."
Piñol echoed the Chinese foreign ministry, which said that it was "an ordinary maritime traffic incident," and that it was irresponsible for the Philippines to "politicize the incident without verification."
"I don't know why the President should be dragged into this issue. In our perspective at the Department of Agriculture, this is just a simple maritime incident which should be handled at our level," Piñol said in an ANC interview on Monday, June 17.
"I don't understand why people are blowing this out of proportion," he also said.
In a press briefing earlier on Monday, Piñol also said sinking of Filipino vessel F/B Gem-Ver in Recto Bank (Reed Bank) was an "isolated incident."
"Whether it was an accidental collision or intentional ramming is an issue that is better resolved through the conduct of a maritime investigation," said Piñol.
Piñol also said the Philippine government doesn't need to change its policy in the West Philippine Sea after a Filipino boat was sunk then abandoned at sea by a Chinese vessel.
Following its pivot to China, the Duterte administration has consistently downplayed the Philippine government's 2016 legal victory over the Asian giant in the South China Sea, parts of which Manila claims as the West Philippine Sea. It has also refused to confront China about its militarization of the area.
"I don't see any reason why this isolated incident should change our policies. There's peace in that area," Piñol said in a press briefing on Monday, 8 days after the sinking incident.
The incident on June 9 near Recto (Reed) Bank cost the fishermen and the boat owners about P1 million worth of fish and P500,000 in capital. The boat costs P700,000, according to the DA.
Piñol said he will be going to Occidental Mindoro on Wednesday, June 19, to release 11 fiberglass boats to the crew members of F/B Gem-Ver, the boat that was sunk by a Chinese vessel.
On June 9, a Filipino fishing boat with 22 crew members was rammed down by a Chinese fishing vessel near Recto Bank (Reed Bank). The Chinese vessel approached after the assault, turned on its lights on the wreckage, turned them off, then sped away, abandoning the Filipinos at sea. The crew were able to save themselves by spotting a Vietnamese fishing boat around 5 miles away.
Citing his own interview with one of the crew, Richard Blaza, Piñol noted that this has not happened in the past and thus "we consider this as an isolated incident."
He added that he cannot conclude yet whether the Chinese vessel intended to ram the Filipino boat. He said the investigation will depend on maritime-involved agencies probing the incident: the Armed Forces of the Philippines - Western Command, the Philippine Coast Guard, and the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina). (READ: AFP: Chinese vessel's sinking of PH boat 'far from accidental')
For experts and longtime observers of Philippine-Chinese relations over the West Philippine Sea, however, the collision may only be a taste of what can come next. Fishermen from Fishing Boat Gem-Ver and other boats Rappler interviewed said they are afraid to return to Recto Bank, fearing a repeat.
Recto Bank is an underwater reef formation that is said to contain huge reserves of oil and natural gas in the West Philippine Sea. While coveted by China, Recto Bank belongs to the Philippines.
A Hague verdict has declared the area as exclusively for the harvesting of Filipinos, but the Duterte administration has refused to enforce the ruling. As of June 17, President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to issue a statement on the incident. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.