MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest against China after the crew of its fishing boat sank a Filipino vessel carrying 22 fishermen in South China Sea, potentially inflaming a dispute calmed by warmer ties between their leaders.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said on his personal Twitter account on Thursday (June 13) that he had "fired off a diplomatic protest yesterday" on the incident.
President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman described the act of China's fishing vessel on June 9 as uncivilised, outrageous and barbaric in what could be the most serious flare-up between Manila and Beijing in three years.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo also called on China to investigate and sanction the crew members, supporting the call of Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who said diplomatic steps should be taken.
"The captain and the crew of the Chinese vessel should not have left the injured party without any assistance. Such act of desertion is inhuman," Panelo said in a statement, adding the Chinese crew violated international protocols that require them to assist a vessel in distress.
Since Duterte's election in mid-2016, the Philippines has pivoted towards China, often setting aside a July 2016 ruling by the Hague that rejected China's sea claims.
"The critics of Duterte's China policy are going to seize on this unfortunate incident to cast a shadow of doubt over his approach to the South China Sea," said Richard Heydarian, a fellow at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan and author of a book on the President. "This is definitely a soft power disaster for China and could possibly sink Duterte's ability to convince the people of his approach to Beijing."
Defence Secretary Lorenzana had condemned the crew of the Chinese fishing vessel for abandoning the 22 distressed Filipinos aboard FB Gimber 1, who were later rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat and a Philippine Navy ship.
The incident took place near Reed Bank, an area claimed by both Manila and Beijing where there is a pending oil exploration plan by Philippines company PXP Energy Corp. PXP is headed for a third day of declines on June 13.
The Chinese crew members' act of leaving the area as the Philippine boat was sinking indicates they hit the vessel intentionally, said Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Penetrante, spokesman for the military unit in charge of the disputed waters.
"It is far from accidental, because if it is, they should have stopped and rescued our fishermen," he said.
Locsin did not explain why hours ago he tweeted that he will wait for a government task force to establish the facts first before filing any diplomatic protest.
He also tweeted this on Thursday noon time: "Did I use hit and run. But come to think of it, I'll use that."
China asserts control over more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, a key shipping route also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.