A Philippine fishing vessel was struck and sunk by a Chinese fishing vessel near the contested Reed Bank in the South China Sea on Sunday. The 22 crew members were then left to fend for themselves before being picked up by a Vietnamese fishing boat. They were ultimately recovered by the Philippine Navy.
The Philippine fishing vessel Gimver 1 was anchored when it was struck by a vessel the crew described as being Chinese. The Philippine Coast Guard is still trying to verify the identity of the offending vessel. A Coast Guard spokesman said, “I asked if they [the crew] saw the bow number, they said, ‘No’. Why did they say it’s Chinese? What’s the description? It’s not yet clear. That’s why we are still investigating what really happened.”
Reed Bank, which the Philippines calls Recto Bank, lies about a hundred nautical miles northwest of the Philippine island of Palawan, and is at the northwest tip of the contested Spratly Islands. A 2016 arbitration ruling held that the bank is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, but it is also claimed by China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and Taiwan. There are believed to be significant reserves of natural gas in the area. The Philippines has conducted surveys of the bank but China has interfered with efforts to explore for gas and has insisted on taking the lead in any joint-exploration or exploitation venture.
The Philippines’ Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, “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.”
In remarks at a major regional defense forum in Singapore last month, China’s minister of national defense, General Wei Fenghe, said that the situation in the South China Sea was “generally stable and positive” and asserted that China had never “bullied or preyed on others.”
Vietnam charges that a Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessel fired water cannons and chased one of its own fishing vessels onto rocks near the contested Paracel Islands in March where it sank.
It isn’t known if the Chinese fishing vessel involved is privately operated or part of China’s paramilitary maritime militia, which Beijing uses to harass other fishermen in areas of the South China Sea that it claims jurisdiction over. Chinese fishing vessels have gotten into altercations with other regional fishermen before, and even against law enforcement vessels, including ramming incidents involving both the Japanese and South Korean coast guards.