Manila Times /Manila
President Rodrigo Duterte is not inclined to ask Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jinhua to shed light on the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat in disputed waters, Malacanang said yesterday.
Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo belied statements made by Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana a day earlier that Cabinet officials had proposed that Zhao be asked to offer Beijing’s version of the incident.
“We cannot summon the ambassador, we have no jurisdiction. We are not the government of China to summon the official of China. The word is ‘invite,’” Panelo told reporters.
“But we feel, or the president, I think is not inclined to do that because he feels that, first, they are doing something about it and the ambassador has already issued a statement about seriously and cautiously studying the facts,” he said.
Summoning the Chinese envoy would also be an undiplomatic gesture, Panelo claimed.
“We will not because it doesn’t look good… That is not diplomatic,” he said.
“It’s like you’re prejudging the case if you invite him… It’s still being investigated. Did they commit an offence, do they need to explain to us?” he added.
Lorenzana, in a media interview on the sidelines of Monday’s Philippine Navy anniversary celebrations, said Cabinet officials who met in Malacanang earlier that day wanted to invite Zhao to add to an official investigation.
Panelo, however, also belied this. “A Cabinet member (Lorenzana) suggested that the Chinese (ambassador) be invited, not summoned, for a discussion on the collision. The suggestion was not adopted,” he said.
Lorenzana was not immediately available for comment.
Meanwhile, Panelo reiterated that Malacanang would await the final findings of both Philippine and Chinese investigators before agreeing on how to resolve the issue.
“Let us look at the facts. That is the government and the president’s line,” he said.
“The Chinese side has the right to be heard,” he added.
Duterte, who on Monday finally spoke about the boat sinking a week after it happened called it a “little maritime incident.”
“It is best investigated and I will not issue a statement now because there is no investigation and there is no result. Then the only thing that we can do is to wait and give the other party the right to be heard,” he said.
Twenty-two Filipino fishermen aboard the F/B Gem-Ver were abandoned by the Yuemaobinyu 42212 off Reed Bank in the West Philippine (South China) Sea on June 9. They were later rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel.
The incident sparked an uproar and prompted the Philippines to file a diplomatic protest. Beijing, however, said it was an “ordinary maritime traffic incident” and warned Manila against politicising the matter.
Duterte’s dismissive statement was defended by Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, who said the President was “not downplaying” the boat sinking.
“I am tinkering with the idea of suggesting that (there be a) joint investigation between the two countries,” he added.
The Palace official pointed out that, having filed a diplomatic protest, the Philippines should wait for China’s response.
“After China makes the reply, when it does make a reply, then we will proceed with whatever options are open to us,” he added.
Nograles said the Philippines could pursue a claim that the abandonment of the Filipino fishermen was a violation of the Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and also raise the matter via the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism.
“Those are some of the mechanisms that are open to us, obviously. So, again, it depends on what is discussed,” he added.
Duterte’s remarks prompted Sen. Panfilo Lacson to urge the government to be more forceful against China.
“It is disappointing to say the least, not much by his insulting remark but his self-limiting course of action, which disregards an effective ‘weapon’ in our arsenal. It is found in the Mutual Defence Treaty,” Lacson said in a statement.
“No less than US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as much very recently — that the US and the Philippines have an obligation under such treaty to respond accordingly if a vessel belonging to either party, military or civilian is attacked in the West Philippine Sea, which, according to him, is within the area of the Pacific,” he added.
“It is not about going to war with China that we are hoping for, but at least a balance of power in the WPS (West Philippine Sea) should be felt, which the Philippines is obviously not capable of doing on our own.”
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said, “What is in issue, and what is clear and admitted, is that the Chinese boat captain abandoned the Filipino fishermen in distress at sea.”
“This is the issue that should be addressed and the basis of China’s liability under international law and the Unclos,” he added.
The Gem-Ver’s skipper also expressed disappointment and said Duterte had belittled what happened.
“I am saddened because it’s as if our being hit was nothing,” Junel Insigne said in a television interview.
He asked the government for help to repair the vessel and hold those at fault accountable. More important, Insigne said he was also hoping that the Duterte administration would find a way to keep Chinese vessels out of Philippine waters, pointing out that he needed to keep fishing to support his family.
The Foreign Affairs department meanwhile, said the incident could, be raised by Duterte during this weekend’s 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Thailand.
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Junever Mahilum-West noted that issues involving the South China Sea would be on the regional meeting’s agenda.
“During the exchange of views on regional developments, there is an opening to raise this issue… incidents like what happened emphasise the importance of having a code of conduct so that we could avoid, we could prevent these incidents from happening in the future,” she added.
Mahilum-West claimed progress had been made on a draft text with the first of “several readings” likely to be completed by the end of this year.
Still, she said the Gem-Ver’s sinking was unlikely to be discussed “in full depth” as the Asean summit was not the proper venue to tackle the issue.
“It’s a very important issue… (but) Asean discusses the South China Sea in the context of the code of conduct, which is being discussed between China and Asean member states,” Mahilum-West explained.
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