It was after dark on June 9, and the FB GEM-VER, a Philippine fishing boat, was anchored somewhere near Reed Bank in the middle of the South China Sea when, suddenly, a Chinese vessel crashed into its side. As the fishing boat began to sink, the Chinese vessel flashed its lights, revealing 22 Filipino fishermen desperately trying to stay afloat amid the wreckage. The Chinese vessel shut off its lights, turned around, and promptly sailed away. Hours later, a Vietnamese fishing boat rescued the stranded sailors. Philippine-Chinese relations, however, are still lost at sea.
June 9, as it happens, has been Filipino-Chinese Friendship Day since 2002. Perhaps this is what motivated a series of pro-China statements from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in the following days. The Philippine public, however, wasn’t buying it. And now their friendship with China, if it ever existed, has gone out with a (boat-to-boat) bang.
The sea has long been a point of harsh contention between China and the Philippines. In 2013, tensions between the two countries became particularly heightened when Manila initiated an arbitration case against Beijing under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), opposing Beijing’s Nine-Dash demarcation line and “historic rights” to disputed territories.
Three years later, in 2016, the case was ruled in the Philippines’ favor, but China declined to formally recognize the decision. That has left islands and features in the South China Sea such as Reed Bank legally Philippine but disputed by China.
Following the Philippines’ legal victory against China, which had been initiated under the previous administration, Duterte avoided provoking China further by terminating joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and entering a policy of appeasement with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But now, after Duterte has spent three years trying to quell tensions, the Philippines finds itself at odds with China yet again.
On June 12, shortly after the return of the 22 fishermen, Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana issued a statement strongly condemning China’s actions, calling the incident “cowardly.” Other current and former senior officials in the Philippine government made similar remarks, including Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who urged the president to launch an investigation. But Duterte remained silent.
The next day, Beijing issued a statement saying that the crash was an “ordinary maritime traffic accident,” and on June 14, it released another statement asserting that the Chinese vessel was “besieged by seven or eight Filipino boats.”
This account, however, has since been contradicted by the findings of a joint investigation between the Philippines and China that concluded the incident was a “very serious marine casualty” in which the Chinese vessel failed to comply with the regulations of the UNCLOS.
Duterte finally broke his silence on June 17, seven days after the FB GEM-VER crew members returned to the Philippines. In a speech, the president echoed China’s statement, describing the event as a “little maritime accident,” and warned the public to “not make it worse.”
Suddenly, the rhetoric of other Philippine government officials and cabinet secretaries began to change. Many started to offer doubts that the crash was intentional, and several, including Lorenzana, pulled back on their previous condemnations.
Other members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, however, have remained confident that the crash was not accidental and have continued to demand action from Duterte. But this is not the first time that Duterte and his military have been at odds over bilateral relations. While the president has been persistently pro-China and anti-United States, the armed forces have long expressed the opposite view, a division that even Duterte himself has found troubling.
Many Filipinos are skeptical about their government’s reaction to China’s claims. The captain and fishermen aboard the FB GEM-VER have spoken out and given emotional testimonies about the incident, recounting the horrors of the crash and subsequent abandonment by the Chinese vessel.
“[Duterte] is the most talkative man in Southeast Asia, and he was quiet [for seven days],” said Richard Heydarian, a research fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan and the author of The Rise of Duterte. “It makes me highly suspicious that there was essentially an internal concerted effort to silence the defense establishment on this issue.”
By Isabel Guarco (Foreign Policy News Mag)