Duterte accepts China's proposal to jointly investigate South China Sea boat collision

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte giving a speech at a military base in Cavite, south of Manila, on June 17, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday (June 22) rebuffed his own top diplomat, as he accepted an offer from China to jointly probe the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese trawler early this month.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement that Mr Duterte wants "highly qualified and competent" representatives from the Philippines, China and a "neutral" country in a committee that will investigate the incident.

"To be clear, we are by no means relinquishing any inch of our sovereign rights, nor compromising the rights of our 22 fishermen. We are demanding justice for our countrymen, and we are using all legal means toward that end," said Mr Panelo.

At midnight on June 9, steel-hulled trawler Yuemaobinyu 42212 from Guangdong province struck the stern of wooden outrigger fishing boat Gem-Vir, which had dropped anchor at Reed Bank, a vast but shallow seamount in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

The Gem-Vir sank. But the Chinese trawler, instead of rescuing the boat's crew of 22 men, just sailed on. A Vietnamese fishing boat later plucked the crew out of the water and handed them over to a Philippine navy ship.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, at a briefing on Thursday, proposed a joint probe so that both countries can "exchange respective findings and properly handle the matter through friendly consultations".

But Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodor Locsion shot that down.

"There will be no joint investigation. China and the Philippines will conduct their respective investigations," he said on his official Twitter account on Friday.

But on Saturday, Mr Panelo said "having separate investigations by the two countries may raise speculation and accusation of bias".

"Such circumstance will put any finding by any side open to question and place the entire issue in a confused state. On the other hand, a joint and impartial investigation will not only promote the expedient resolution of the issue, it will also be in accordance with international law," he said.

Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario said on Friday that "the ultimate product of a joint probe with Beijing is expected to be no more than a bowl of fruit salad".

Nationalists in the Senate and left-leaning groups have criticised Mr Duterte for toeing China's line. The President has played down the boat's sinking as a "little maritime incident".

That was how Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang described it last week: "an ordinary maritime traffic accident".

Mr Duterte did not comment on testimonies by Gem-Vir's crew that the Chinese trawler fled after sinking their boat. Instead, he said he would want to hear what China's investigators had to say first.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana agreed with Mr Duterte that the incident was just an "accident". But he stuck to his opinion that the Chinese, in fleeing instead of rescuing Gem-Vir's crew, were "cowardly", and should apologise and offer compensation.

Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research said any joint probe should not lead to a "cover-up", if only to preserve warmer ties between Manila and Beijing.

"Yes, we want to value our relationship with China… But let us not allow this friendship to cover up the story of what really happened in the incident. We don't want to let this friendship deny justice to the 22 fishermen," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.