MANILA, Philippines (6th UPDATE) – It is a first in the decades-long dispute between Manila and Beijing over the West Philippine Sea.
The sinking of Filipino Fishing Boat Gem-Ver by Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu 42212 is, in the words of a Supreme Court justice, "a quantum escalation of China’s aggressive acts against the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea."
This is also the most heated issue in the disputed waters since the 2012 standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), which prompted Manila to file a case against Beijing. (The Philippines won this case in 2016, nullifying China’s expansive claim over the West Philippine Sea.)
Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler
Rappler plots a timeline of events before, during, and after the sinking of Gem-Ver by a Chinese vessel at Recto Bank (Reed Bank).
MAY 29, 2019
F/B Gem-Ver sails out from San Jose, Occidental Mindoro to fish near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea.
Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler
Located on an island south of Manila, San Jose is 10 hours away by car and by boat from the Philippine capital. Recto Bank, on the other hand, is located west of Palawan.
Gem-Ver carries 22 fishermen, and their voyage from San Jose to Recto Bank takes two days.
MAY 30, 2019
Stopping by Palawan
Gem-Ver stops by Culion, Palawan to stock up on water supplies.
JUNE 1, 2019
Reaching Recto Bank
Gem-Ver reaches Recto Bank.
JUNE 9, 2019
It is around 11:30 pm.
Out of nowhere, Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu 42212 rams the back of Gem-Ver. This leaves a hole that causes the boat to sink from the rear.
Fishermen run to the bow or front of the ship.
Yuemaobinyu 42212 returns to the wreckage to flash its light on the wreckage. Then, the Chinese vessel turns off its lights, speeds off, and never returns.
Contrary to the claims of Malacañang and Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, the fishermen of Gem-Ver were not asleep when the Chinese ship rammed them in the West Philippine Sea. The boat's cook, Richard Blaza, says he woke up his fellow crewmen before the Chinese boat hit them.
(Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, one of the staunchest defenders of the West Philippine Sea, later says it is "highly likely that a Chinese maritime militia vessel rammed" the Filipino boat.)
Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler
June 9, incidentally, is Philippines-China Friendship Day. This is the 44th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and China on June 9, 1975.
June 10, 2019
'Vietnam? Philippines? Friends.'
The Chinese ship leaves the Filipinos floating in the middle of the sea, in the cold of night — "tired, hungry, and cold."
At around 1 am, Gem-Ver crewmen spot a light from afar, their only hope for survival.
The boat's captain Junel Insigne orders two of his men, JP Gordiones and Justine Pascual, to row to the light. They salvage and use two small boats that had been attached to Gem-Ver.
Two hours later, at around 3 am, Gordiones and Pascual reach the boat, seeing it is a Vietnamese fishing vessel. They shout for help, and are pulled aboard.
There, Pascual says, "Vietnam? Philippines? Friends."
They then lead the 10 Vietnamese fishermen to the wreckage site, arriving around an hour after to rescue the Filipino crew who have already been floating for hours. (READ: INSIDE STORY: How Filipino crew were saved by Vietnamese in West PH Sea)
The 10 fishermen from the Vietnamese province of Tien Giang "took them to their boat and fed them rice and instant noodles, and helped them get warm after many hours of struggling in the sea for their lives," according to VNExpress.
At around 4 am, Gem-Ver captain Insigne radios boats in the Philippines for help using the Vietnamese boat’s equipment.
Later in the morning, Filipino fishing boat M2M arrives at the site to receive the Filipino fishermen from the Vietnamese. Gem-Ver is also tied to M2M to keep it afloat.
It is also in the morning that the Philippine Navy is alerted about the incident. The Navy sends BRP Ramon Alcaraz – one of its most capable warships, a hand-me-down from the United States – to the wreckage site.
June 11, 2019
The long wait
The Gem-Ver crew waits inside M2M for the Philippine Navy to arrive at the wreckage site.
June 12, 2019
Independence Day exposé
Responding to the fishermen's call for help, the Philippine Navy's BRP Ramon Alcaraz reaches Recto Bank at around 1 am.
Twenty one of 22 crewmen of Gem-Ver are welcomed to the Navy ship, where they undergo a debriefing and medical examination.
Boy Gordiones, the machine man, stays behind with Gem-Ver to cover its hole and install a pump to keep it from sinking deep again.
At 5:08 pm, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana releases a statement to reporters announcing a "collision" near Recto Bank. He condemns the Chinese fishing vessel for abandoning the 22 Filipino fishermen.
Lorenzana's announcement enrages Filipinos.
At 6:16 pm, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr tweets his initial reaction: "I take my cue from Defense Secretary Lorenzana. What is contemptible and condemnable is the abandonment of the crew to the elements. Vietnam’s rescue will be the basis of enhanced Vietnam-Philippines military cooperation."
Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario then releases a statement calling on the Duterte administration to hold China accountable for the Recto Bank incident.
JUNE 13, 2019
Official reactions pour in, and the flip-flopping begins.
In a statement sent to reporters early morning of June 13, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo calls on the Chinese government to sanction the crew of the Chinese ship.
Panelo says it "is uncivilized as it is outrageous" for the Chinese vessel to abandon the distressed crew of Gem-Ver. He adds, "Such act of desertion is inhuman as it is barbaric."
In a midday press briefing on the same day, Panelo says it is possible for the Philippines to cut ties with China over the boat-sinking incident.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, in one of his tweets, meanwhile rejects calls to seek international support over the Recto Bank issue. "Fuck the international community. It can be bought. This is our fight and in the end ours alone," says Locsin.
Locsin also tweets that he "fired off a diplomatic protest" the previous day, June 12, but the Department of Foreign Affairs does not release an official statement providing further details.
What surprises Filipinos, later in the afternoon, is a statement by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. From a combative posture just a day earlier, the defense chief says he is now unsure if the vessel that sank a Filipino boat was Chinese.
In the evening, reporters receive a copy of the message of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to the Philippine government. In a message to Panelo, Zhao promises a thorough probe into the Recto Bank incident.
It is Panelo who relays China's message to Filipino journalists.
On the same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang downplays the issue as "an ordinary maritime traffic incident," and says it is irresponsible for the Philippines to "politicize the incident without verification."
JUNE 14, 2019
China's plot twist
Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad contradicts the Chinese foreign ministry, saying the sinking of the boat is "not a normal accident." Empedrad also says Gem-Ver was rammed.
The mayor of the fisherman's town, Romulo Festin, on the other hand demands action from the Duterte government.
In the waters of Occidental Mindoro, at 4 pm, the Navy turns over the fishermen to the care of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in a ceremony aboard BRP Alcaraz.
Here, Gem-Ver captain Junel Insigne talks to reporters and stresses he is sure a Chinese ship sank their boat.
At 5:30 pm, the fishermen board BRP Tausug with journalists and sail back to San Jose.
Then, at 8 pm, the fishermen of Gem-Ver arrive home at the new port of San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, and meet with their waiting wives, siblings, and children, who have been restless for days.
At 8:30 pm, the fishermen of Gem-Ver are brought to the Philippine Coast Guard Headquarters of San Jose to accept aid and to contribute to the PCG's investigation.
Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler
Miles away, in London, the Philippines raises the boat sinking incident before the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations (UN) agency, on the safety and security of international shipping.
Senen Mangalile, the Philippines' deputy representative to the IMO, tells the United Nations agency that Gem-Ver fishermen "were callously abandoned to the elements" by the Chinese ship.
At 9:20 pm, the Chinese embassy posts on Facebook their version of the Recto Bank incident.
China denies there was a "hit-and-run" in the West Philippine Sea. It says the Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu 42212 was in fact "besieged by 7 or 8 Filipino boats," preventing it from helping the distressed fishermen of F/B Gem-Ver.
The captain of Gem-Ver promptly responds to China's claim. "Lumubog nga kami, kami pa ang aatake (We were the ones who sank, yet we would be the ones to attack)?" says Gem-Ver captain Junel Insigne in an interview with Rappler in Occidental Mindoro.
An hour after China released its statement, the United States also speaks up on the Recto Bank incident, rejecting coercion and intimidation to assert maritime claims.
In the same evening, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio – one of the leading experts on the West Philippine Sea – weighs in. Carpio urges Filipinos to demand compensation from China and to "take a strong stand."
Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler
In the meantime, the Chinese embassy's statement on the issue disappears from Facebook. This fuels speculations among Filipinos that China is taking back its claim. (The statement is however reposted the next morning.)
JUNE 15, 2019
Satellite image exposes a lie
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr reacts to China's claim.
"Interesting. That's China's take and it is a free world; it can say anything it wants. We say what we want because it is a free world for us too; but in our case we speak from the law of the sea. But still everyone's free," tweets Locsin.
China's claim further loses credence, however, as maritime expert Jay Batongbacal posts a satellite image of Recto Bank on the night of the boat sinking incident.
The satellite image show the vessels were too far away from one other to constitute a swarm.
Screenshot from Jay Batongbacal
JUNE 16, 2019
A dismaying visit
Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi pays a visit to the devastated fishermen at around 10:30 am, promising them help from the Duterte government. As a native of Oriental Mindoro, Cusi has been assigned to manage the affairs of the Mimaropa region, which includes Occidental Mindoro.
While his pledges for help are welcomed, his statements dismay fishermen, after he suggests that the Chinese trawler unintentionally rammed the Filipino vessel before it abandoned them.
At lunch time, Mayor Romulo Festin announces that the boat's captain Junel Insigne has been invited to speak with President Rodrigo Duterte in Malacañang, along with the crew’s cook Richard Blaza, and one of the boat’s owners, Arlinda dela Torre.
Insigne later backs out from the meeting after being called home by his wife, who was appalled by Cusi's comments.
Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler
JUNE 17, 2019
Duterte breaks his silence
Six days after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana informed the public about the ramming, the uncharacteristically silent President Rodrigo Duterte speaks up on the issue.
In the morning, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo says Duterte has been silent because he has been waiting for the facts. This shows the Palace's openness to the side of China.
In the afternoon, two Duterte Cabinet clusters led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III meet in Malacañang, but arrive at no major decision.
Hours later, Duterte addresses the issue for the first time in the most fitting of events – the 121st anniversary of the Philippine Navy in Sangley Point, Cavite.
In a speech, Duterte dismisses the assault as a "little maritime incident." He says, "Banggaan lang ng barko 'yan (That’s just a collision of ships)."
Duterte echoes the Chinese foreign ministry's position that it was an "ordinary maritime traffic incident."
On the same day, in China, the Chinese foreign ministry releases a new statement on the Recto Bank boat sinking incident.
In this new statement, China omits the detail about the Chinese ship "besieged by 7 or 8 Filipino fishing boats." For the first time, too, China sends its sympathies to the 22 fishermen of Gem-Ver.
JUNE 18, 2019
Malacañang airs more doubts
The Department of Foreign Affairs says the country's top diplomat, Teodoro Locsin Jr, raised the Recto Bank incident in a United Nations meeting in New York.
"It is a felony to abandon people in distress," says Locsin in the UN event.
(The UN event, incidentally, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS. The UNCLOS is the basis of the case against China that the Philippines won in July 2016.)
Photo by Manman Dejeto/Rappler
In the Philippines, however, Malacañang airs more doubts about the Recto Bank incident.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo says there is a need to verify the Gem-Ver captain’s claim that the boat sinking in Recto Bank was intentional.
Panelo says that because of new circumstances, "there is now a doubt" if the Filipino captain's version is true. "Kaya nga kailangan maimbestigahan na (That's why we need to investigate it)."
Then, toward the end of the day, a surprise from Vietnam: the owner of the Vietnamese fishing boat talks to state-run VNExpress, corroborating the account of the Filipino fishermen.
JUNE 19, 2019
Lorenzana's new claim
In Occidental Mindoro, Gem-Ver boat captain Junel Insigne also changes his tune, now saying he is unsure if a Chinese ship intentionally sank their boat. This comes after a closed-door meeting between the Gem-Ver fishermen and Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol in a house surrounded by cops.
JUNE 20, 2019
Joint investigation proposed
The Chinese government pushes for a joint Philippines-China investigation into the Recto Bank incident.
This is consistent with the proposal by Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra.
President Rodrigo Duterte is open to a joint Philippines-China probe into the Recto Bank incident, says Panelo.
In Vietnam, the foreign ministry praises the Vietnamese vessel that rescued the 22 fishermen of Gem-Ver.
Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang says the Vietnamese vessel "performed its international duty," which is "to humanely treat and support fishermen in distress at sea."
Facing its own problems with the Chinese, Vietnam also defends Vietnamese fishermen against harassment by Chinese vessels.
JUNE 21, 2019
Robredo visits the fishermen
Vice President Leni Robredo visits the 22 fishermen of Gem-Ver in Occidental Mindoro, and gives each of them P50,000 in assistance.
Like Locsin, the wife of Gem-Ver captain Junel Insigne says she prefers a separate investigation by the Philippines and China.
In Davao City, Duterte talks about the Recto Bank incident for the second time. Duterte says it was not an attack on Philippine sovereignty, but fails to mention the country’s sovereign rights over the sea.
Duterte also vows to discuss China's maritime claim at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Bangkok during the weekend.
JUNE 22, 2019
Malacañang says President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to a joint Philippines-China investigation into the Recto Bank incident. Duterte pushes for a joint investigating committee composed of representatives from the Philippines, China, and a "neutral country."
Former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is one of the first to criticize Duterte’s decision, saying this is an "overt surrender of our sovereignty." Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros adds that a joint investigation will "deny that an injustice has been committed against our people."
Later, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo backtracks and says a third party will only come in if the Philippines and China disagree.
On the same day, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade says the Maritime Industry Authority and the Philippine Coast Guard have completed their own probe into the issue.
JUNE 23, 2019
Robredo, senators vs joint probe
Vice President Leni Robredo says she is "not confident" about the planned joint probe with China, as she prefers an investigation conducted by a third party.
Senator Francis Pangilinan says, "Kung na-hit and run ang kamag-anak natin, hindi ba't magiging katawa-tawa kung kasama sa mag-iimbestiga ang kakampi ng mga mismong nakabangga?" (If our relative was a victim of hit-and-run, wouldn't it be ridiculous if we will investigate it alongside an ally of the one who hit our relative?)
In Bangkok, Duterte talks about the South China Sea dispute at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, but spares China from tongue-lashing. Instead Duterte vents his "disappointment" over the long-delayed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and also thanks the Vietnamese for their "act of kindness and compassion" toward Filipino fishermen.
JUNE 24, 2019
'That's how it is'
For the first time, President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the 22 Filipino fishermen in the Recto Bank incident. He makes this statement when a journalist in a group interview asked him for his message
"I'm sorry, but that's how it is. It is a maritime incident," the President tells the Gem-Ver fishermen.
In the same interview, a journalist asks the President: "Will you prevent China from fishing within our EEZ? Iyong pwede po bang…kasi 'yun 'yung request ng mga fishermen?" (Will you prevent China from fishing within our EEZ? Can it be...because that's the request of the fishermen?)
Duterte answers: "I don't think that China would do that. Why? Because we're friends. And they are of the same view that that should not result in any bloody confrontation."
Like Duterte, Senate President Vicente Sotto III downplays the Recto Bank incident, claiming that the Chinese ship did not sink Gem-Ver.
On the same day, former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario says he donated P500,000 to the Gem-Ver fishermen through the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). But Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr returns this to Del Rosario, because the DFA "cannot dispense donations."
JUNE 25, 2019
'Because we're friends'
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo interprets Duterte’s words about China and the Philippines' EEZ.
Referring to China, Panelo says: "He said they will not allow it, but as far as they're concerned, they have historical right to that. Number two, we will allow it kasi we're friends naman, 'di magbigayan muna tayo – parang ganoon ang punto ni Presidente (because we're friends, so let's give way to each other – that seems to be the President's point)."
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio later refutes the Duterte government, saying it is unconstitutional to allow Chinese fishermen to fish in the West Philippine Sea. – Rappler.com
This is a developing story. We will update this page as new updates come in.
Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.