Around midnight on June 9, a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and partially sank a wooden Filipino fishing boat, the F/B Gem-Ver 1, which was 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 abandoned 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.

An Accident or a Deliberate Act?

On June 12, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana criticized the Chinese for abandoning the Filipino fishermen to the mercy of the sea, saying that “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. On June 14, the Department of Foreign Affairs filed a formal diplomatic protest with Beijing over the Chinese fishing vessel’s actions.

A day earlier, the Chinese foreign ministry had dismissively called the incident “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 has 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-Ver 1 a “quantum escalation of China’s aggressive acts against the Philippines.”

Appeasement Policy in Crisis

The usually outspoken President Duterte, however, was conspicuously silent about the Reed Bank incident in the immediate aftermath. He broke his silence on June 17 to declare the sinking a “little maritime accident,” echoing the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement and contradicting those of his defense secretary, the vice admiral of the Philippine Navy, the captain of the Gem-Ver 1, and the owner of the Vietnamese fishing vessel who rescued the 22 Filipino crew members.

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 August 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 Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest with China over the presence of more than two hundred suspected militia vessels around Thitu Island.

After the sinking of the Gem-Ver 1, opposition politicians have urged Duterte to take a stronger stand against China by recalling the Philippine ambassador from Beijing to show how serious he is about defending the country’s maritime rights as well as the safety of Filipino fisherfolk. His response has instead shown that he is willing to compromise both in order to safeguard his increasingly fragile rapprochement with China.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a distinguished university professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Dr. Aurelio Calderon Chair in Philippines-American Relation. As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Albert Del Rosario Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ADRI), he writes monthly opinion columns for the Philippine Star and Business World.