The sinking of a Filipino fishing vessel in Reed Bank and abandonment of its distressed crew by a Chinese vessel on June 9 presented a new test to bilateral relations. While both sides sought to downplay the incident, the Philippines did express its resentment and has raised the matter in international bodies. As Manila’s and Beijing’s separate investigations draw to a close, a proposed joint probe has been met with both support and opposition.
The timing of the incident could not been any worse. It happened as the country marked Filipino-Chinese Friendship Day and was officially disclosed three days after the Philippines celebrated its Independence Day. Even within the executive, cabinet officials harbored differences in viewing the incident and how to proceed in handling it. Threat perceptions of China resurfaced as allegations that the sinking was intentional, and may have involved China’s maritime militia, came to the fore.
In a bid to ease tensions, manage disputes, and focus on economic development, President Rodrigo Duterte, since assuming office, has adopted pragmatism and restraint in dealing with fishing incidents. To him, the idea is to let fishermen be fishermen. During his state visit to Beijing in 2016, he secured the resumption of Filipino access to Scarborough Shoal. The feature had been closed to Filipino fishermen since the standoff in 2012, leading Manila to take Beijing to arbitration in The Hague the year after.
Twice in 2016 and 2017, Duterte pardoned, gave provisions to, and personally led the send-off for Vietnamese fishermen caught poaching in the country’s waters off northwestern Luzon. He also expressed regret for the shooting of two Vietnamese fishermen and the detention of 22 others – 17 fishermen who were released in 2016 and another five released in 2017. These releases were sought by the Vietnamese government during Duterte’s visit to Hanoi in 2016 and again when Duterte attended the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang. These acts of goodwill were not lost on Vietnamese fishermen. Hence, when the opportunity came, they did not hesitate to reciprocate by rescuing 22 Filipino fishermen stranded in Reed Bank after their boat was struck by a Chinese vessel close to midnight on June 9.
While some official rhetoric was unhelpful, overall the Philippine government response to the incident was steadfast and sober. Food and financial assistance were given to the fishermen and their families and they were provided new, although smaller, boats while their damaged fishing vessel undergoes repair. Business and civic organizations also donated money. Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Pinol and Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi visited the fishermen in Occidental Mindoro to personally deliver government relief. Efforts were made to reach out to the Filipino fishing crew, the Vietnamese crew who rescued them, and the Chinese side. As they emerge from the trauma over the incident and more facts from ongoing investigations surface, the fishermen have acknowledged that the encounter may not have been intended. Even Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana conceded that the collision was an accident.
On the international front, a diplomatic protest was immediately filed and the matter has been raised before the International Maritime Organization in London. Furthermore, speaking before the 25th anniversary of the commemoration of the entry into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in New York, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin called the abandonment of distressed people at sea a “felony.” In the recent ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Duterte expressed disappointment over delays in the conclusion of a regional maritime code of conduct.
For several days, Duterte restrained from commenting on the issue, preferring to wait until the investigation is completed. But pressure from some quarters prompted him to describe what happened as a sorry “maritime incident” that should not be magnified. The reference to the sinking as minor or little was probably made in relation to the larger bilateral relationship or regional efforts to manage disputes in the contested sea. But his statement was criticized for showing indifference to the fishermen and weakness in the face of foreign intrusion.
For all its noble intention, leniency toward foreign illegal fishing in Philippine waters may only invite further incursions and demoralize maritime law enforcers. While parts of the South China Sea are considered as traditional fishing grounds by fishermen from surrounding coastal states, allowing foreign fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone violates domestic laws. It will also expose Filipino fishermen, especially artisanal ones, to competition from larger and more mechanized trawlers from neighboring countries. As other countries, like Indonesia, toughen their stance against foreign intrusion, Duterte’s policy may inadvertently entice foreign fishermen to move their operations into Philippine waters. Prompted by environmental and civil society groups, the Supreme Court issued a manifesto (writ of kalikasan) to compel the government to demonstrate its efforts in protecting and preserving the country’s marine environment.
In terms of repairing the China-Philippines relationship specifically, a joint investigation was floated as a possible way forward. It is highly probable that both sides have already concluded their own investigations at this time. Thus, a joint probe will allow both to compare notes, confirm similar findings, and narrow down areas where they have variances. This will be helpful in determining responsibility for the incident, remedies for the aggrieved, and measures to prevent another mishap in the future.
Such a joint probe is not unprecedented and may not necessarily affect any sovereign rights over the area subjected to the inquiry. In 2017, Indonesia and Vietnam agreed to a joint probe after a reported skirmish between a Vietnamese coast guard vessel and an Indonesian patrol boat, which had just arrested and was about to bring a Vietnamese fishing vessel to shore. In 2015, Myanmar and China launched a joint investigation after a bomb from a Myanmar aircraft landed across the Chinese border, killing four and damaging property. In 2013, the Philippines and the United States conducted a joint assessment of the damage to the Tubbataha Reef marine sanctuary after the grounding of USS Guardian.
But while China supports this approach, the Philippine position is divided. Secretary Lorenzana, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, and President Duterte are open to it. On the other hand, Vice President Leni Robredo, Secretary Locsin, Senators Panfilo Lacson, Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, and Risa Hontiveros oppose it. Opposition to the proposal stems from an intrinsic distrust and adverse impression of China and concern about perceived waiver of sovereignty. Robredo is pushing for a neutral third party to conduct an impartial inquiry.
The Reed Bank incident is shaping up as a serious test for both bilateral relations and incident management in the South China Sea. Realizing the attendant diplomatic and reputational costs, it behooves Beijing to discipline and rein in its fishermen. Should intent and the involvement of its maritime militia be established, Manila may recalibrate its China policy. Domestically, it may give a further boost to modernization drives in the navy, coast guard, fisheries and maritime police. A spotlight on small-scale fishermen may lead to state efforts or public-private partnerships to equip them with basic communication, tracking, and navigational equipment.
Moving forward, both sides can reflect on their own experiences or draw lessons from neighbors in handling the incident. But mistrust and sovereign sensitivities will continue to constrain even the best mutual efforts.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation and the University of the Philippines Korea Research Center and a Lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program at Ateneo de Manila University.