Philippine President Duterte stands by China despite pressure over sea collision

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stuck to his pro-China stance despite calls from the opposition to change his "passive" China policy. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is standing by China, despite pressure to review his friendly stance towards Beijing after a collision involving the two nations' boats in the South China Sea.

In his first public statement about what he described as a "maritime incident," Mr Duterte said China's side should be heard on the collision that resulted in a Philippine vessel carrying 22 fishermen sinking in disputed waters on June 9.

The crew were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat and a Philippine Navy ship.

"It is best investigated. I don't issue a statement now because there's no investigation and no result," Mr Duterte said in speech at a Philippine Navy event on Monday night (June 17).

"The only thing we can do is wait and give the other party the right to be heard."

The Philippines will not escalate tensions with China by sending military ships to the South China Sea following the collision, he added, reiterating his nation isn't ready to go to war with Beijing.

Mr Duterte stuck to his pro-China stance despite calls from the opposition, led by Vice-President Leni Robredo, to change his "passive" China policy by actively asserting the nation's rights in the disputed waters.

Ms Robredo also called on Mr Duterte's government to demand the Chinese fishermen's trial in the Philippines.

"This is the time where we expect our leaders to be true to their oath and speak, act and do what is needed to defend the dignity of our nation," Ms Robredo said in a statement Sunday posted on her official Facebook page.


Mr Duterte now has to convince the public that friendly ties with China is still the way to go, said Mr Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

"Between the Philippine government and the Chinese government the friendship policy has been set, but this incident has happened and casts doubt on the sincerity and wisdom of it to the Filipino people," Mr Batongbacal said.

The Philippines' long-term position in the South China Sea dispute may be weakened if Mr Duterte maintains his pro-Beijing stance after the incident, said Professor Jeffrey Ordaniel, a fellow at Hawaii-based foreign policy research institute Pacific Forum.

"The Duterte administration's China policy is unfortunately helping the Chinese pursue their maritime ambitions."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang described the incident as an "accidental collision," at briefing on Monday.

Beijing's embassy in Manila also denied its vessel sank the Philippine boat and abandoned its crew members, saying instead it was being "besieged" by other Filipino fishing boats when the incident happened.

"Linking it to the friendly feelings of the two peoples, and the relations between the two countries, and even politicising the interpretation is not appropriate," the Chinese official said.

The incident took place near Reed Bank, an area claimed by both Manila and Beijing where there's a pending oil exploration plan by Philippines company PXP Energy Corp.

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