By: Criselda Yabes

Late in the evening of June 9, a Chinese vessel rammed through a wooden Filipino fishing banca, a seagoing outrigger in an archipelagic country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The 22 crew members say they were abandoned to their own survival at sea.

The incident took place at the Reed Bank off the island of Palawan, jutting out into the South China Sea, an entire swath of ocean that China has claimed as its maritime territory and that an arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled belonged to the Philippines in 2016 under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas. China has ignored the ruling. The incident took place about 150 km. from Palawan, well within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. 

When the Filipino fishermen were brought to a naval ship for medical help, a nationwide play began to unfold, a drama of the poor being bullied by a giant that is China. It further turned political when the rescued fishermen were, in a photo op, made to wear Philippine Navy T-shirts and to pose, their faces tired, with their hands in a fist-bump – the trademark gesture of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Amid the drama playing out with different scenarios, the facts seem clear. The banca, F/B Gem-Vir 1, was anchored when a Chinese ship crashed against the boat’s rear, sinking it. The crew of the Chinese vessel, ‘Yuemaobinyu 42212,’ left the scene, abandoning the fishermen in open water to be rescued by a passing Vietnamese vessel.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila first said the Chinese vessel had “bumped into” the banca. The captain, the embassy said, “tried to rescue the Filipino fishermen” but fled in fear of being “besieged by seven or eight Filipino fishing vessels.” The Yuemaobinyu only sailed away, the statement said, after confirming that other fishermen rescued the crew.

However, the captain of the sunken vessel, Junel Insigne, said they “were the only ones there. There were no other boats.” 

Later, the Chinese dropped the claim that Filipino fishing boats had besieged the Chinese vessel, only maintaining that the incident was an “accidental collision” and that there had been confusion.

It didn’t confuse the Philippine public, who burned replicas of the Chinese flag in front of Beijing’s embassy in Manila.  The incident has added to the growing antagonism of the public over Chinese illegal immigration and exploitation of the Philippines by China, as Asia Sentinel reported in December. According to a poll last September by Social Weather Stations, net public trust of China stood at negative 13, with 72 percent of the sample deeming it “very important” that the Philippines regain control of disputed territories claimed by China in Philippine waters.

And where was Duterte in all of this? It took him nearly a week to say something in public during an event at a naval base where it was clear that the Philippine Navy, yet unable to catch up with its neighbors in Southeast Asia in expanding its fleet, could do nothing without the president’s command.

It was a “little maritime incident,” Duterte said, and with that the script swiftly changed. His defense, energy, agriculture and foreign affairs secretaries, his spokesman, and others in government followed suit, transforming their tone of indignation into doubt and misgivings.

That left only the Western Command spokesman Lt. Col. Stephen Penetrante, to argue that the incident was “far from accidental.” Maritime experts said the boat that caused the sinking of the Filipino fishermen’s boat was likely a Chinese militia vessel.

China’s foreign ministry said they would look into this.

The last time the government stood up against China was in 2012, when the Navy’s flagship, a mere decommissioned cutter donated by the United States, was in a tug of war with China’s ships over the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of Zambales province in the west. It was that incident that forced Manila to file its maritime case at the international tribunal,  and winning the only avenue it had among its options.

The long-awaited decision was handed down just days after President Duterte was sworn into office about three years ago, and the Philippines underwent a sudden turnaround, making friends with the enemy, immediately overturning all else to avoid any quarrel at all cost, and falling into the arms of a huge and powerful nation in its backyard of blue waters.

The captain of the Filipino crew declined a meeting at the presidential palace – which was brave and unusual of him to do so. Insigne has the face of every typical fisherman burnt by the sun, a face that speaks of the underprivileged in a country that, ironically, has one of the longest coastlines in the world. These fishermen’s heyday has long since gone, brought on by a dwindling sea harvest and the Chinese presence.

It had taken the fishermen two days from their coastal town in Luzon to reach the Reed Bank where fishing was more profitable, and to be sunk. In the end, a presidential emissary, a cabinet member, went to see the fishermen but not without a phalanx of policemen in full battle gear and offerings of gifts and money.

In a press conference that was to be the culmination of this story, the secretary coaxed the fishermen into saying that they must have been confused, that it may not have been a Chinese vessel that hit their boat.  

Yes, said Junel Insigne, we must have been confused. “It looks like we were hit, it looks like we were not,” Insigne recounted. “I was really upset that we were left there. I would like our beloved president to accept my apology, it wasn’t he who asked for me, it was the secretary who called for me. I didn’t go, I backed out because I wasn’t feeling well.”

For the government, this may perhaps be a fitting end, one similar to last year after the Chinese Coast Guard confiscated the harvest of fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal. They were taken to the palace in a move to appease them and were told that with China’s “goodwill” they could now have access to fishing in the waters where they once had the freedom to do so. It appears that such a gesture has become a common script.

There may be another one of these soon. This one had few shadow moves. The president’s allies have reiterated the standard response, which is that Duterte would not want to go to war with China. This incident was not a provocation to war. The tragedy, in the long run, is what is likely to become of the Filipinos’ principle of sovereignty.

Criselda Yabes (yabescriselda@gmail.com) is a prizewinning journalist and author and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.