Philippines rejects China's call to jointly probe collision in South China Sea

The damaged Philippine fishing vessel at the shore of San Jose town, Occidental Mindoro province, Philippines.
The damaged Philippine fishing vessel at the shore of San Jose town, Occidental Mindoro province, Philippines.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - The Philippines on Friday (June 21) rejected China’s suggestions to jointly probe the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese trawler early this month.

“There will be no joint investigation. China and the Philippines will conduct their respective investigations,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said in a tweet.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, at a briefing on Thursday, proposed a joint probe to “exchange respective findings and properly handle the matter through friendly consultations”.

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.

President Rodrigo Duterte 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 out what China’s investigators had to say first.

Former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario said early Friday morning that  a joint probe “is the worst news yet”.

“It redounds to a potential partnership between one party (the Philippines, which is out to seek the truth), against another party (China, the bully) who is out to suppress it,” he said in a statement  released shortly before he left for Hong Kong for a business meeting.

He added: “We should really feel sorry for our poor fishermen, as the ultimate product of a joint probe with Beijing is expected to be no more than a bowl of fruit salad.”

Mr Del Rosario was later held at Hong Kong’s airport. He was taken to a staff lounge and told to wait there. 

“They asked all the mundane questions… They asked the usual information, all of which is  actually documented in the passport and the landing documents. It’s beginning to look like plain and simple harassment,” he said.

He was denied entry eventually and was set to board a flight back to Manila on Friday afternoon. 

In March, Mr Del Rosario and the Philippines’ former chief anti-graft prosecutor Conchita Morales filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC), accusing Chinese  President Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity over China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea.

Ms Morales was held at Hong Kong’s airport last month (May) in what one opposition senator said was “clearly in retaliation for her courageous act of bringing China to court”.

In their complaint, Mr Del Rosario and Ms Morales said China, in claiming nearly all of the South China Sea, had deprived thousands of fishermen of their livelihood and destroyed the environment.

They called China’s programme to turn seven disputed reefs into islands and construct air and naval bases on them “one of the most massive, near permanent and devastating destruction of the environment in humanity’s history”.