The Department of Foreign Affairs and Malacañang on Friday clashed on whether the Philippines should investigate the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat that was hit by a Chinese vessel near the Recto Bank separately from China.
On his Twitter account, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said: “There will be no joint investigation. China and Philippines will conduct their respective investigations.”
“DFA will act on my view and no one else’s. I talked to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea; Palace supports me,” Locsin said.
However, despite Locsin’s statement, the Palace said President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed a joint investigation with China.
“The President welcomes a joint investigation and an early resolution of the case. We will await a formal communication from the Chinese embassy,” Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a message to reporters on Thursday night.
On Friday, Duterte said the incident was not an attack on the country’s sovereignty, adding there was no need to raise a “convoluted argument” over the allision.
In a speech during the oath-taking of his youngest son, Davao City Vice Mayor-elect Sebastian Duterte, the Chief Executive said he would discuss “lengthily” with other Southeast Asian leaders China’s maritime claim over the South China Sea during the ASEAN Summit in Thailand.
Even as he stressed that “China is a friend,” Duterte said he would ask other Southeast Asian leaders if it is “correct” for the Asian giant to expansively claim ownership of the resource-filled waterway.
“It is not a matter of 9-dash line. It’s simple. Can you claim an ocean as your own? Tell me now because I will also claim mine,” Duterte said.
“I said, is it correct for China to declare ownership of an ocean? I am the moderator for China and ASEAN, but I’m posing this question. Can you claim ownership of an ocean?” he added.
“China says if it’s their fault, they will pay,” the President added in the same speech, reiterating the Palace’s stance to conduct an investigation and wait for its conclusion.
Locsin’s statement followed a suggestion from Beijing—and some Cabinet members—that both countries investigate the June 9 incident in the West Philippine Sea jointly.
The statement seemed to be a repudiation of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra’s proposal that both countries investigate the incident jointly.
Locsin added that the incident was “beyond civilian agencies’ remit and falls well within” the jurisdiction of the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs and defense and national security agencies.
On Tuesday, Panelo floated the possibility of a joint investigation.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, in an interview with reporters, backed Panelo’s suggestion, noting that a joint probe could be “one of the options.”
On Thursday, China suggested a joint investigation to allow both countries to exchange initial findings and “to properly handle the matter.”
The Philippines accused the Chinese vessel of abandoning the 22 Filipino fishermen in distress at sea after their boat sank. The fishermen were rescued hours later by a Vietnamese ship.
Earlier, China said the incident was not intentional and that the Chinese vessel tried to rescue the Filipinos but were allegedly besieged by other Filipino boats.
Neither the Chinese nor administration officials have explained why any of the Filipino boats—if they were there—did not rescue the fishermen.
The Palace has played down the incident and cast doubts on the fishermen’s claims that their boat was rammed.
After maintaining silence on the sinking for more than a week, President Rodrigo Duterte called it “a minor maritime accident.”
On June 9, the Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver1 sank after a Chinese boat hit it, leaving the Filipino boat’s 22 crew members floundering in the water for several hours until they were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat.
On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang suggested a joint investigation “at an early date” to find a proper solution and “so the two sides can exchange respective initial findings and properly handle the matter through friendly consultations based on mutually-recognized investigation results.”
The Philippine government has already filed a diplomatic protest against China in relation to the abandoning of the Filipino fishermen.
The 22 affected Filipino fishermen received a total of P45,000, including a P25,000 loan, each as well as boats, rice, scholarships for their children and livelihood opportunities from the government
The government also gave financial assistance to the owner for the repair of the damaged fishing boat, F/B GEM-VIR.
Guevarra also supported a joint investigation, saying it could serve as a forum for determining the accountability of the parties involved.
“We should pursue this approach,” Guevarra said, in a text message to reporters.
The fishermen claimed the Chinese vessel intentionally hit their boat and abandoned them.
But after meeting with several Cabinet officials on Wednesday, the fishermen retracted their earlier statement, saying the collision could have been an accident.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary and Ambassador Albert del Rosario said the joint probe was “the worst news yet.”
“It redounds to a potential partnership between one party (the Philippines, who is out to seek the truth) against another party (China, the bully) who is out to suppress it,” he said in a statement.
“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. Can we please not insult the intelligence of our people?”
Panelo on Friday also slammed Senator Panfilo Lacson for saying he was acting like a lawyer for China.
Lacson had made the remark after Panelo raised doubts about the account given by the fishermen and gave credence to Chinese statements.
Lacson said Panelo’s remarks made him look like a defense counsel for China.
If Panelo were in a courtroom, he would have said, “For the defense, representing China, your Honor,” Lacson said.
“The perception that my pointing out of certain circumstances surrounding the Reed Bank incident previously unknown to us, creates the impression that I’m acting as China’s counsel, is sheer non sequitur, as well as a shallow analysis of my examination of the incident,” Panelo said in a statement.
“As a lawyer I have been trained to dissect a situation, to arrive at an intelligent and rational study of the whys and wherefores of a subject of an inquiry,” he added.
He also said Lacson was just “smarting” from his previous rejection of the senator’s earlier call for the Duterte administration to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States over the Recto Bank incident.
“When one runs out of reason, he becomes violent and irrational. I hope he has a strong heart and has no blockage in his arteries [especially because] he is a friend,” the senator said.
He also said he was not sure if Panelo was rational on the Recto Bank incident.
Panelo, meanwhile, continued to attack critics for their “pretended nationalism.”
“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,” Panelo said.
“They hope to succeed in getting the approbation of the nation on a misguided theory that the administration is pursuing a foreign policy of subservience to China, a belief that is both wrong and unacceptable,” he continued.
Liberal Party president Senator Francis Pangilinan said the incident involved not only the country’s sovereignty but also its food security.
“Defending and supporting our fishermen are also equal to ensuring food sufficiency,” he said.
The Recto Bank, Pangilinan said, is a huge source of marine resources.
“Fish is the cheapest source of protein for Filipinos. We won’t be a healthy, strong and unified nation if most of us are hungry,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
He said the Philippines own about 376,350 square kilometers of the West Philippine Sea, which was not included in China’s claim.
This area, he said, is a rich source of fish, oil, gas, and other minerals—is much larger than the country’s land area of about 300,000 square kilometers.
“We cannot be meek and submissive in defending what belongs to us by international law,” he said.
“This government is willing to go to war against Canada over garbage and yet it is docile and subservient toward China over tens of trillions of dollars’ worth of marine, mineral, and energy sources that are ours based on the UN Convention on the law of the seas and as decided by the international arbitral tribunal,” he added.
Detained Senator Leila de Lima also expressed disgust at the treatment of the fishermen, who seemed to be pressured into towing the government line on the incident.
She said it was obvious that the fishermen have been pressured to ride on the government’s line after the captain of the Filipino fishing boat wavered on whether the incident was intentional or not.
After a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, Junel Insigne, captain of the F/B GEM-VIR 1, said he was no longer sure whether the Chinese vessel deliberately rammed their boat or not.
De Lima criticized how the fishermen were “lined up like criminals” during the press conference as police in full gear surrounded them.
“The Chinese puppets of the Duterte government have become the puppeteers to their own countrymen,” she said.
“This is how our government officials can betray us. It’s not easy to be abandoned at sea by people who want to take advantage. But it is even more difficult to be abandoned by your government who sided with the foreigners,” she added.
Former President and incumbent House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Friday threw her support behind President Rodrigo Duterte on his actions regarding the Recto Bank incident, saying the Philippines can be friends with China while protecting the national interest.
“I support President Duterte because he knows what he’s doing. And he wants to be friends with China and at the same time of course, he is promoting the national interest. Which is also my attitude,” she said.
Vice President Leni Robredo visited the 22 fishermen and gave each of them P50,000 in cash assistance from her office’s anti-poverty program.
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