Chinese vessel sinks Philippine fishing boat in contested waters; Manila seeks probe

Activists burn a mock Chinese flag with a map of the South China Sea during a protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila on June 12, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - The Philippines has called for an investigation after a Chinese fishing boat rammed into and sank a Philippine fishing boat near a disputed reef in the South China Sea on Sunday (June 9).

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement on Wednesday that the Philippine vessel was anchored at Reed Bank, when it was hit by the Chinese boat.

The Philippine boat, which had a crew of 22, sank.

Mr Lorenzana said the Chinese, instead of fishing the men out of the water, fled the scene.

The Filipinos were rescued instead by a nearby Vietnamese fishing boat. A Philippine Navy ship was then dispatched and retrieved all 22 men.

"We condemn, in the strongest terms, the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew. This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people," said Mr Lorenzana.

He said he has asked the Department of Foreign Affairs to take "diplomatic steps", as he sought an investigation into the incident "to prevent a repeat".

Captain Armand Balilo, a spokesman, said the Philippine Coast Guard was still trying to determine what really happened on Sunday.

"It was said (to be) a Chinese vessel. But some are saying it's Vietnamese. We're checking all the vessels that passed that area at that time," he told reporters.

He said he had spoken to the owner of the fishing boat.

"I asked if they saw the bow number, they said, 'No'. Why did they say it's Chinese? What's the description? It's not yet clear. That's why we are still investigating what really happened," he said.

Asked if the ramming was intentional, he replied: "We don't know at this point."

This is not the first time Chinese and Philippine vessels have been involved in a skirmish at Reed Bank.

In 2011, Chinese patrol vessels almost rammed a Philippine-contracted, Singapore-flagged survey ship there.

Reed Bank, a shallow seamount that spans nearly 9,000 sq km, is believed to hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic ft of natural gas.

The Philippines began surveying the area in 2003 as it sought a new source of natural gas.

But in 2008, Beijing began blocking efforts by Manila to explore for resources there, as it asserted its claims over nearly all of the South China Sea.

Reed Bank sits north-east of the hotly contested Spratly archipelago, and is nearer the Philippines' coastline than China's.

The Philippines suspended all drilling and exploration works at Reed Bank in 2014, following a case Manila filed with an international tribunal challenging Beijing's South China Sea claims.

The Philippines is hoping that, with ties with Beijing warming under President Rodrigo Duterte, a deal could be worked out with China to jointly search for oil and gas at Reed Bank.

But China is insisting that it should take the lead in the exploration, citing its historic rights over Reed Bank.

That, however, runs against provisions of the Philippine Constitution, which marks Reed Bank as within the Philippines' so-called exclusive economic zone.

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