Beijing confirmed Saturday that a Chinese vessel hit a Philippine fishing boat in a collision which has increased tensions in the disputed South China Sea, but denied claims it was a “hit and run”.
The Chinese trawler sailed away after the incident Sunday near Reed Bank that sank the fishing boat, sparking outrage from Philippine authorities and media.
While President Rodrigo Duterte has largely set aside the once tense stand-off with China over the resource-rich waterway, many in the Philippines bristle at Beijing’s actions in the sea.
The Chinese embassy in Manila said the crew of trawler Yuemaobinyu 42212 “bumped into” the Philippine boat and then left due to safety fears.
“The Chinese captain tried to rescue the Filipino fisherman, but was afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats,” the statement said.
It went on to say the incident was not a “hit-and-run”, as some Philippine authorities had claimed, because the trawler “confirmed the fishermen from the Filipino boat were rescued”.
However, the 22 fishermen told a very different story, saying they had spent hours in the water awaiting help.
They were eventually picked up by a Vietnamese boat and brought home Friday aboard a Philippine navy vessel.
The Philippine coast guard has started an investigation of the incident which Duterte’s spokesman branded as “outrageous and barbaric”.
Opposition lawmaker Francis Pangilinan branded China’s version of events “as fake as its territorial claims,” and called for Philippine leaders to stand up to Beijing.
“Now is the time to show real grit and toughness,” Pangilinan said. “There is never a time to be meek and submissive before a foreign power that endangers our own people.”
Duterte has yet to make any public comment but he recently criticised China’s assertive stance over the sea.
“I love China… but it behoves upon us to ask, ‘Is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?’” he said in a speech last month.
Manila’s Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said this week that he had lodged a diplomatic protest with China over the sinking.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday called the incident “an ordinary maritime traffic accident”.
Geng said it was irresponsible for the Philippines to “politicise the incident without verification”.
Competing claims over the South China Sea are a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it, and rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath its waters.
Reed Bank, an area claimed by Manila and Beijing, is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and far from China’s nearest major landmass.
Manila won a key 2016 ruling against China’s claims in the waterway, but Duterte opted to set it aside in exchange for Chinese investments.
Opposition politicians as well as segments of the public and media charge that Duterte has bartered away Philippine sovereignty with little to show in return.