MANILA - The crew of a Chinese trawler that sank a Philippine fishing boat last month could have avoided a collision but failed to do so, and then fled instead of plucking the boat's men out of the water, a state-appointed probe team has concluded.
A 14-page report sent to President Rodrigo Duterte by the Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority confirmed accounts that at midnight on June 9, the Yuemaobinyu 42212, a steel-hulled trawler from Guangdong province, struck the stern of the Gem-Ver, a wooden outrigger fishing boat that had dropped anchor at a vast but shallow seamount in disputed waters in the South China Sea.
The Gem-Ver sank. The Yuemaobinyu stopped, and then moved just 50m from the Gem-Ver. But instead of rescuing the boat's crew of 22 men, it sailed on.
A Vietnamese fishing boat later rescued the crew and handed them over to a Philippine navy ship.
The report said the crew of the Yuemaobinyu were "found to have failed to take appropriate action to avoid the risk of (a) collision and to render assistance to a vessel in distress".
The Gem-Ver had two lights on, including a white flashing bulb in the stern, and visibility was "slightly clear", it said.
The weather was "fair" and the sky was clear, lit by a first-quarter moon, it said. The sea was calm.
These suggested that the Yuemaobinyu's lookouts would have seen the Gem-Ver, and could have taken steps to steer their ship away from the boat.
The report said "by manoeuvring back and stopping approximately 50m away from the Gem-Ver, with her fishing lights open, the other vessel can be considered to have direct knowledge of the distress situation".
By leaving instead of rendering help, the Yuemaobinyu violated maritime laws.
But the report did not say if the sinking was intentional, and declined to hold the Chinese liable. It recommended that Chinese officials conduct their own investigation.
The report also faulted the Gem-Ver's crew for not designating its own lookout.
"By not having or maintaining a designated lookout at the time they were anchored, no one could signal an alarm of any approaching danger," it said.
"Let China make its case," Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said in a post on Twitter.
He said he was not in favour of a joint probe, "let alone a joint conclusion needing Chinese officials coming over to investigate something done to us in our territory".
Even before he received the report, Mr Duterte had already said the Gem-Ver's sinking appeared to be an "accident" that could have been caused by "miscommunication".
He said he would wait for the results of a joint probe proposed by China before drawing any more conclusions or taking any action.
His critics accused him of toeing China's line in playing down the incident.
Mr Duterte has pivoted towards China since taking office three years ago, as he courted investments for his infrastructure programme and political backing from Beijing.