Chinese vessel sinks Philippine boat

The Philippine government has filed a diplomatic protest over the collision between a Chinese and Filipino fishing vessels which sank the latter in the South China Sea. Would this dispute alter the status quo between the Philippines and China in the conduct of their foreign policy.

Background 

For the Philippines, the Reed Bank in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is the country’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. It is a shallow seamount that spans nearly 9,000 sq km, is believed to hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic ft of natural gas. The Philippines began surveying the area in 2003 as it sought a new source of natural gas.

In 2008, Beijing began blocking efforts by Manila to explore for resources there, as it asserted its claims over nearly all of the South China Sea. The Philippines suspended all drilling and exploration works at Reed Bank in 2014, following a case Manila filed with an international tribunal challenging Beijing's South China Sea claims. In 2016, The Permanent Court of Arbitration upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its EEZ and invalidated China’s claims in virtually all of the South China Sea. But China has refused to recognize the ruling.

The Chinese ships have blocked or intimidated Philippine military and civilian vessels at Reed Bank and nearby Second Thomas Shoal. With ties with Beijing warming under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines was hoping that a deal could be worked out with China to jointly search for oil and gas at Reed Bank. But China is insisting that it should take the lead in the exploration, citing its historic rights over Reed Bank.

Analysis

The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest with China after a fishing boat was hit in the disputed South China Sea by a Chinese vessel, leaving 22 Philippine fishermen stranded at sea.

The Palace acknowledged the dispute between the Philippines and China on their rights over the West Philippine Sea but said this should not have stopped the Chinese crew from helping the Filipinos after the crash. “The present territorial conflict between the countries of the two colliding vessels pertaining to the area where the collision occurred, is not – and cannot be an impediment for the offending vessel to lend a hand to the distressed crew. The Captain and the crew of the Chinese vessel should not have left the injured party without any assistance or succor,” said Malacanag.

The Philippine government said the act violated international laws and called on China to impose sanctions on the crew of the Chinese ship. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement on the Philippine vessel was anchored at Reed Bank, when it was hit by the Chinese boat. Mr Lorenzana said the Chinese, instead of fishing the men out of the water, fled the scene. The Filipinos were rescued instead by a nearby Vietnamese fishing boat. A Philippine Navy ship was then dispatched and retrieved all 22 men.

"We condemn, in the strongest terms, the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew. This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people," said Mr Lorenzana. The Philippine coast guard said it was checking whether those involved were Chinese fishermen or from other neighbouring countries like Vietnam and if the collision was intentional.

The sinking is a delicate development in the long-contested South China Sea, which is seen as a potential flashpoint in Asian relations. Tensions escalated after China built seven disputed reefs into islands which can serve as forward military bases and intimidate rival claimant states in a strategic waterway, where US forces undertake “freedom of navigation” patrols.

Assessment 

Our assessment is that the incident and the fallout has threatened to rock relations between China and the Philippines despite warming ties that had been underway initially under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. We believe that Duterte would stand by China and prefer that their side should be also heard. We also feel that the Philippines will not escalate the tension with China by sending military ships to the South China Sea , reiterating that the country is not prepared to go to war with Beijing.

While the Sino – Philippine ties have improved, only 27 percent of Filipinos believe that Chinese have good intentions in Philippines. It can be noted that Duterte has been heavily criticized for his pursuing friendly ties with China amid the dispute. We feel that the Filipinos fear billions worth of loans and pledges from China would force the Philippines into a debt trap. We feel that this incident could possibly sink Duterte’s ability to convince the people of his approach to Beijing. It is also likely that Duterte may decide to minimize ties or even opt for a more severe response if the issue escalates.

The Philippines has asked the United Nations to make protecting life at sea a priority. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. said he had authorized the Philippine Embassy in London to make an "appeal" before the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a London-based specialized agency of the UN that focuses on the safety, security, and environmental impact of international shipping.

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