On June 9, 2019, there was a collision between two fishing boats in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), one a People’s Republic of China-flagged vessel and one a Philippines-flagged fishing boat. The incident elicited wild accusations and demands for precipitous retaliatory action by some Filipino officials and even some supposedly objective international policy analysts. This is not the first time alarmists and agent provocateurs have tried to push the Philippines into conflict with China. This piece focuses on the lessons that should be learned from this latest troubling episode.
The captain and crew of the Filipino boat claimed that the Chinese fishing vessel rammed their boat while it was at anchor and then left them to their fate. According to one of the rescued crew shortly after the incident, “It was around midnight. We were anchored and were showing a lot of white lights to signal our position when a ship suddenly appeared out of nowhere and hit us,” Junel Insigne, the boat’s captain, said. “I was trying to start our engine when we were hit in the stern.”
Philippines Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said he believed a Chinese militia ship was likely behind the ramming of the Filipino vessel. Carpio also reminded the military of its duty to secure the national territory, which “for purposes of our Constitution, includes our EEZ.” Some even said the incident “may signal the start of a new ‘gray zone’offensive by China to drive away Filipino fishing vessels in the West Philippine Sea”.
Senator Panfilo Lacson raised the possibility of invoking the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim seemed to encourage this by then stating that the MDT applied to the Chinese maritime militia. He said that “any armed attack [would trigger the MDT]. I would think that would include government sanctioned militias”.
Philippine analyst Richard Heydarian referred to many of these alarmist statements and called the incident Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s “greatest foreign policy crisis yet”. Apparently for Heydarian, Duterte’s distancing of the Philippines from its long-term Treaty ally, the US does not qualify as a “crisis”.
Prominent academic Renato Cruz de Castro opined that Duterte “was willing to compromise both the country’s maritime rights and the safety of Filipino fisherfolk in order to safeguard his increasingly fragile rapprochement with China”.
To his credit, almost alone among Filipino analysts, Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said “the Philippines has done its part by articulating its position on the South China Sea dispute through statements from defense and foreign affairs departments”. He said “the government should calm the public down to avoid complicating the issue”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to the verbal attacks by saying that the incident was “an ordinary maritime traffic accident” and that it was irresponsible for the Philippines to “politicize the incident without verification”. The Chinese embassy in Manila said the crew of the trawler Yuemaobinyu 42212 had been fishing, “bumped into the Philippine boat, and then left due to safety fears”. He said “the Chinese captain tried to rescue the Filipino fisherman, but was afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats”.
These statements elicited howls of disbelief and derision from Philippine nationalists and anti-China pundits. But after meeting with Philippine officials, the captain and crew inexplicably changed their story and the Philippine official response rapidly evolved. After days of rising tension, Duterte played down the aggressive rhetoric coming from some Philippine officials who had branded the incident a hit-and-run. Instead he described it as just a collision.
Duterte revealed that he made an “informal” agreement with Xi Jinping that the Philippines would allow China’s fishermen to fish on Reed Bank in exchange for China allowing Philippines fishermen to fish around Scarborough Shoal.
The President urged Filipinos not to “make it worse” and reiterated the country was not ready to go to war. He said China’s side should be heard. Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said that “the Reed Bank incident is being dressed with misplaced emotionalism and pretended nationalism by those who are bent on politicizing an otherwise ordinary navigation incident into an international fracas”.
Although initial reports from the armed forces described the incident as a purposeful collision (a ramming), Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also eventually conceded that it was an accident citing “information we got from some of the crew”. Lorenzana did say however that Manila would pursue charges against the Chinese boat’s crew for failing to assist seafarers in distress, a violation of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
Chinese Ambassador to the Philippine Shao Jianhua said China would thoroughly investigate the matter, and educate and punish the fishermen found responsible. After first rejecting it, Manila eventually accepted Beijing’s offer to conduct a joint investigation into the sinking. Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo called for a representative from the Philippines and China along with one from a neutral country to investigate the incident. But China rejected the “third party” option.
The Philippine government’s next steps will depend on the results of the investigation and China’s action thereafter. A leaked Philippines report on the matter found that although the Philippine vessel did not have a “proper lookout” and some other minor deficiencies, the Chinese vessel was mainly at fault by failing “ to take appropriate action to avoid the risk of collision and to render assistance to a vessel in distress”. Indeed, the behavior of the Chinese vessel in leaving the Filipinos to their fate was not only an apparent violation of UNCLOS but of ancient seafaring custom. If it is found that there were no mitigating circumstances, such as being “besieged by Filipino fishing boats”, then the guilty parties must be held accountable. In this event, Manila should expect an apology from the captain of the Chinese vessel for neglecting his duty to rescue the Filipino fishermen.
There is also the matter of compensation for the boat and loss of livelihood. Finally, China should fine or even jail the captain and/or crew based on its relevant laws and educate all its fishermen about what to do if such incidents happen in the future. The ball is now in China’s court. In any case, the Vietnamese fishing boat crew that rescued the fishermen should be publicly commended for doing the right thing.
The main lesson learned is that officials, analysts and media should not jump to conclusions in such situations, let alone fan the flames of nationalism. Given his proclivities for impetuousness and bombast, Duterte handled this situation very well. China helped by admitting fault.
However, the incident revealed more fundamental issues that need to be addressed. For example, neither Chinese nor Vietnamese fishing boats are supposed to be fishing in the Philippine EEZ without permission. Sen. Francis Pangilinan, a member of the Senate minority and president of the minority Liberal Party, warned that the joint probe would undermine Manila’s position in the maritime dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea. “It also impacts our territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea,” Pangilinan, a lawyer, said. “It was already ruled as ours at The Hague in 2016. It weakens our position and can be raised as an act of abandonment of our claim.”
However, Duterte revealed that he made an “informal” agreement with Xi Jinping that the Philippines would allow China’s fishermen to fish on Reed Bank in exchange for China allowing Philippines fishermen to fish around Scarborough Shoal. Because of this, Duterte is being accused of violating the constitution by allowing China to fish in the Philippines EEZ. There have even been calls for his impeachment. In response, Duterte is asking China to assure that it will observe the rights and protect the safety of Philippines fishers.
After all this, Duterte remains hugely popular and the opposition remains a vocal minority. So on it goes in a seemingly endless spiral and intertwining of Philippine domestic politics and its relations with China.