MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - China has admitted that its trawler was at fault in the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat at Recto Bank in the South China Sea in June, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced on Wednesday (Aug 28).
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, speaking to reporters in Beijing ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte's arrival for a fifth visit to China, said the owner of the trawler apologised for his vessel's hitting and sinking the FB Gem-Ver 1 then abandoning the Philippine fishing boat's crew in the open water.
In an unusual move, the DFA released on Twitter a memorandum to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr dated Aug 28 reporting the translated portion of a letter of apology sent by a Chinese fishing association.
"At present, we have come up with an accident investigation report. We believe that, although this accident was an unintentional mistake of the Chinese fishermen, the Chinese fishing boat should, however, take the major responsibility in the accident," the association said.
The group asked the Philippines to file a claim for compensation "based on the actual loss" and promised that the trawler's owner would "coordinate with the Philippine side to expedite" the insurance claim.
"It was fortunate that there were no casualties. I feel deep regret that this accident had to happen and I would like to express my deep sympathy to the Filipino fishermen. The shipowner of the Chinese fishing boat involved, through our association, would like to express his sincere apology to the Filipino fishermen," the group said.
"The letter was sent by the president of the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association. It was sent to and received by the Philippine Embassy in Beijing on 26 August 2019," the DFA said in a statement to reporters on Wednesday night.
It said the letter was sent by a Mr Chen Shiqin.
The Aug 28 memo had "Chinese Apology on the Recto Bank Collision Incident" for subject, and bore Mr Locsin's signature and handwritten acknowledgment: "Noted."
In Beijing, Mr Panelo said the Philippines accepted the apology.
"We accept the recent apology extended by the owner of the Chinese vessel to our fishermen affected by the incident," Mr Panelo said in a statement.
"We likewise welcome the owner's humility to take responsibility and acknowledgment that compensation must be provided to cover the actual loss," he said.
Twenty-two Filipino fishermen from Occidental Mindoro nearly lost their lives when their boat sank after being hit by the Chinese trawler, which then sailed away.
The incident happened at Recto Bank, also known as Reed Bank, around midnight on June 9.
Recto Bank is within the Philippines' 370km exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea
RESCUED BY VIETNAMESE BOAT
A Vietnamese fishing boat rescued the Filipino fishermen.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who reported the incident on June 12, had condemned the Chinese trawler's "cowardly action".
The Chinese Embassy in Manila on June 12 identified the trawler as the Yuemaobinyu 42212, but claimed the vessel left without helping the Filipino fishermen because it was being pursued by other Philippine boats.
That was clearly incorrect, because by then it was already widely known that the Filipino fishermen had been in the water for hours before a Vietnamese fishing boat came to rescue them.
In an investigation report submitted to Malacanang on June 20, the Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority said the Chinese trawler failed to take measures to avoid hitting the Gem-Ver 1 and wilfully left the Filipino fishermen in the water.
The investigators described the incident as a "very serious marine casualty" event due to the total loss of the Gem-Ver 1.
The Chinese fishing association called the incident an "accidental collision between a Chinese and a Philippine fishing boat". Until the letter of apology from the Chinese fishing group, China had neither admitted fault nor apologised for the actions of the Chinese trawler.
Though belated, the apology was a welcome development that may serve as a catalyst for the conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, Muntinlupa Representative Ruffy Biazon said on Wednesday.
"The statement of apology from the Chinese is welcome, especially the admission that the Chinese boat should take major responsibility," Mr Biazon said in a statement.
"Moving forward, this should be a catalyst for a code of conduct" for claimants in the South China Sea, he said.
Asean and China have been discussing a code of conduct to manage the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
A framework for negotiations has been drawn up to serve as guide in actual talks on the proposed code.
PHILIPPINE VERSION CORRECT
Senator Francis Tolentino on Wednesday said the Chinese apology showed "the validity of the Philippine version of the incident". Mr Tolentino said the Philippines should pursue a civil claim for damages for the fishermen who lost their livelihood with the loss of their boat.
China insists it owns nearly the entire South China Sea, a sweeping claim opposed by Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which have overlapping stakes in the strategic waterway.
The UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, ruling in July 2016 on a challenge brought by the Philippines, invalidated China's claim and recognised the Philippines' sovereign rights to fish and explore resources in the West Philippine Sea, the waters within the country's EEZ in the South China Sea.
China ignored the ruling, and President Duterte set it aside in exchange for aid, loans and investment from China but promised to take it up with the Chinese before the end of his term in 2022.
He left for Beijing on Wednesday night for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Mr Panelo said the President would discuss the arbitral ruling with Mr Xi and also the Recto Bank incident.