“I know that Filipino fishers have called on Chinese authorities to fully investigate the incident. And I think that is important, we need to find out exactly what happened, and if in fact there was wrongdoing by the Chinese fishing vessel,” Kim said in an interview in Davao.
The US envoy said the Recto Bank ship-ramming incident highlights the importance of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
“So I think there should be an investigation and there should be full accountability and we need to take measures to make sure we prevent accidents or incidents like that from happening again,” he said.
In its 2018 Annual Report to Congress, the US Defense Department disclosed that China has been using its maritime militia as part of its “period of strategic opportunity” to expand its domain as early as 2002.
“The [People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia] plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting,” the report read, specifically pointing to developments in the South China Sea.
The Filipino vessel was anchored near the Reed Bank when it was rammed by a Chinese vessel, causing it to sink and leaving 22 crewmen at the mercy of the elements, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said.
But China has denied this account, saying the trawler merely “bumped”into the Philippine boat and tried to rescue the fishermen but was “afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats.”
“It appears that it was an accident, but obviously a very serious situation,” Kim said.
“The US has continued to support efforts by the region to come up with a meaningful code of conduct, so I hope that effort will continue. Also, an important reminder that there needs to be responsible maritime behavior and activities that are consistent with international law,” the US envoy said.
In his first public comment on the issue, President Rodrigo Duterte said that the sinking was just “a little maritime accident.”
Duterte has largely set aside the Philippines’ row with Beijing over the key waterway to court trade and investments, but also occasionally criticized China’s actions there.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., meanwhile, urged the members of the United Nations to enforce their duty under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to render assistance to persons in distress at sea.
Speaking before the commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the entry into force of UNCLOS at United Nations Headquarters in New York on Monday, Locsin stressed that the “duty to render assistance” is found in UNCLOS and in the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the IMO Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.
He said it is considered a felony for any foreign vessel not to render assistance to persons in distress at sea.
Locsin’s speech came after the Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest against China for abandonment of the 22 Filipino fishermen in distress after a Chinese vessel rammed and sank their boat.
“It is the obligation of every member state of the UN and of the IMO to pay, not just lip service to these conventions but to observe them in real life-and-death situations,” the DFA chief said.
“The rescue of persons in distress is a universally recognized obligation of people and governments; and in the civil law and, maybe even in common law, it is a felony to abandon people in distress; especially when we cause that distress; and more so when it is no bother at all to save them at no risk to oneself,” Locsin said.
Locsin said that while no sanction is available in international law, it should be a cause of some concern.
The 22 Filipino crew were left in the water for three hours until a Vietnamese vessel took them on board. Locsin thanked Vietnam for “this act of mercy and decency.”
The Philippines was one of the original signatories of UNCLOS in 1982, and it ratified it in 1984.
Locsin said that the Philippines has “strongly supported and upheld UNCLOS because it provides a comprehensive legal regime for the oceans and the seas.”
“As the ‘constitution of the oceans,’ it affirms the rule of law in maritime space. Rule of law must be adhered to by all states parties in the belief that no one can thrive nor survive for long in anarchy. Whether international law can be enforced is another matter. And it doesn’t help that parties with the strength to enforce it — and who have invoked a lot the need for it — have not joined it,” Locsin said.
“As such, the Philippines on the basis of UNCLOS … filed a carefully crafted and successful complaint at The Hague to clarify the legal situation in the South China Sea; to remove the confusion or the pretext of confusion on the part of those violating it,” the DFA chief said.
On Tuesday, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said a joint investigation into the ramming incident by the Philippines and China is one of the options being considered.
Despite widespread outrage over the Chinese action, President Duterte remained quiet for eight days then called it a “maritime incident.”
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Junever Mahilum-West, meanwhile, said the 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Thailand on June 22 and 23 might not be the best venue to raise the latest maritime incident.
“Yes, it’s a very important issue, but I don’t think the summit is the best venue to discuss that issue. ASEAN discusses South China Sea in the context of the code of conduct, which is being discussed between China and Asean member states,” she said.
Also on Tuesday, the Palace denied a report from Lorenzana that it would summon Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to Malacañang over the incident.
“We don’t have jurisdiction on the Ambassador (Zhao). We’re not the government of China to summon an official of China,” Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
He said inviting Zhao to the Palace would be to “pre-judge” the Chinese.
“It would seem that if you invited him, it’s like you’re pre-judging him that they are at fault,” he said.
“Why would you invite? They’re investigating it already,” he added.
China expressed sympathy for the 22 Filipino fishermen whose fishing boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese vessel but insisted it was an accidental collision.
“We express our sympathy to the Filipino fishermen who were in distress. After the accident took place, China and the Philippines had rounds of communication on this matter at various levels through multiple channels. I’d like to stress that this is only an accidental collision between fishing boats at sea,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, in a regular press conference.
“In a highly responsible attitude, China will continue to earnestly investigate into this matter. We are ready to enhance communication with the Philippine side on the investigation, increase understanding, dispel mistrust and find out what actually happened. In the spirit of cooperation and friendship, we believe this incident will be handled properly based on fact,” the Chinese spokesman said, adding “China attaches great importance to maritime safety, and we will continue to cooperate with littoral countries in this area.”
Lu made the statement the same day that President Duterte described the incident a little maritime accident, saying it was just a collision of two fishing boats.
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