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Joint probe gets Rody's go-ahead

President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to conduct a joint and impartial investigation with China to determine the truth and accountability on the Recto (also identified as Reed) Bank incident after reports that a Chinese vessel rammed a Filipino fishing boat and reportedly abandoned 22 Filipinos in the South China Sea, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said.

He said aside from China and the Philippines, the President also wanted a third country to be included in the joint probe to be created to determine what really transpired in the Reed Bank, Panelo said in a statement.

Panelo made the announcement a few hours after President Duterte arrived in Thailand to attend the 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. Duterte is on his third visit to Thailand since he assumed office in 2016.

“To this end, the President wants the creation of a joint investigating committee that shall be composed of three groups of highly qualified and competent individuals, with Philippines and China having one representative each, and a third member coming from a neutral country,” he said.

The June 9 incident, when the two boats collided in the South China Sea, has sparked public outrage.

Manila has accused the Chinese trawler of abandoning the vessel’s 22 Filipino crew members—later rescued by Vietnamese fishermen—but Beijing has rejected this.

China states the trawler merely “bumped” the vessel, and tried to rescue the fishermen—but was “afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats.”

Duterte accepted the Chinese government’s offer to conduct a joint investigation into the incident, Panelo said in a statement, “to determine what really transpired.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman had also called on Thursday for a joint probe—where each country could “properly handle the matter through friendly consultations.”

While Manila has filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing, Duterte has urged calm over the incident, setting aside the Philippines’ territorial row with China to court trade and investments.

“To be clear, we are by no means relinquishing any inch of our sovereign rights, nor compromising the rights of our 22 fishermen. We are demanding justice for our countrymen, and we are using all legal means toward that end,” Panelo said.

The incident which has fed into outrage over China’s expansive claims to the waterway—occurred off Reed Bank, a fish and natural gas-rich area of submerged coral reefs.

It is claimed by China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan also have claims to all or part of the flashpoint sea, a key waterway for trillions of dollars in global trade each year.

In related developments:

• In Bangkok, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade confirmed the investigation conducted by the Philippine side on the Reed Bank incident had been completed.

“The MARINA [Maritime Industry Authority] and PCG [Philippine Coast Guard] have completed the investigation,” he told reporters in the Thai capital.

Tugade said the result of the investigation had been submitted to Malacañang on Thursday.

He declined to say what the investigation had found out or what the recommendations were.

In a statement, Panelo said the President wanted to know what really transpired to “find a satisfactory closure to this episode.”

It was not clear, however, if Malacañang had already received a formal communication from Beijing on the joint probe offer.

“The basic dictates of justice demand a full account of the events that ultimately led to the abandonment of our 22 distressed fishermen in the middle of the sea and accountability of those at fault,” he added.

Meanwhile, Malacanang dismissed allegations the Duterte administration was submissive when it came to  China in dealing with the Recto Bank incident, saying such allusion was unacceptable.

In a statement, Panelo also hit back at Duterte’s detractors for allegedly politicizing the incident with “misplaced emotionalism and pretended nationalism.”

He said the  President was trying to cautiously attend to the maritime incident to avoid turning it into an international crisis.

He said the President was concerned about the possible repercussion if it took a wrong move on the issue.

However, some groups have questioned the President’s stance belittling the ramming of the Filipino boat by the Chinese vessel as a “little maritime accident.”

Pending the results of the investigation “whether done independently or jointly,” Panelo said the government’s present focus was to help Filipino fishermen in their current predicament.

“All aid to put them back in harness and to restore them from their displacement are being given them,” he said.

At the same time, Panelo said he recognized that the duty of seafarers to rescue those at peril in the sea was “a well-entrenched principle of international law, maritime law, and humanitarian law.”

“The basic dictates of justice demand a full account of the events that ultimately led to the abandonment of our 22 distressed fishermen in the middle of the sea and accountability of those at fault,” he said.

He also said that a joint investigation was prudent compared to separate inquiries conducted by the Philippines and China to prevent allegations of bias.

“We are by no means relinquishing any inch of our sovereign rights, nor compromising the rights of our 22 fishermen. We are demanding justice for our countrymen, and we are using all legal means toward that end,” Panelo said in a statement.

“Having separate investigations by the two countries may raise speculation and accusation of bias. Such circumstance will put any finding by any side open to question and place the entire issue in a confused state,” he said.

“On the other hand, a joint and impartial investigation will not only promote the expedient resolution of the issue, it will also be in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which places paramount emphasis on the use of peaceful means to resolve international disputes,” Panelo added.

Despite the government’s consent to a joint probe on the Recto Bank incident, Panelo made clear that the government remains committed to uphold the country’s sovereignty and seek justice for the fishermen affected by the allision of the sea vessels.

Before leaving Manila for his Thailand journey, the President insisted that the incident involving a Filipino fishing boat and a Chinese ship in the West Philippine Se was not an attack on the country’s sovereignty.

The President described the Recto Bank development as a little maritime accident, claimed there was no need to wage war or raise a  convoluted argument over the incident. With AFP and PNA

READ: China broaches joint probe on boat ramming

READ: Palace, DFA clash over joint probe of boat ramming

READ: PH, China told: ‘Hold your fire’

READ: Captain frets over Rody’s quip

READ: Boat ramming: PH outraged

Topics: Rodrigo Duterte , Recto Bank , Salvador Panelo , South China Sea ,
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