Chinese Owner Apologizes for Recto Bank Sinking

The wreck of the Gem-Ver 1 (Malacañang)

By The Maritime Executive 08-28-2019 07:25:14

The owner of the Chinese fishing vessel that ran down an anchored Philippine fishing boat near Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the South China Sea has apologized for the damage, according to the Philippine government.

The Chinese vessel Yuemaobinyu 42212 struck and sank the Philippine fishing boat Gem-Vir 1 near Reed Bank on June 9, then departed the scene without helping the stricken vessel's crew. The area is home to long-simmering disputes over land claims and fishing rights, and some politicians in the Philippines have accused the Chinese vessel of carrying out an intentional ramming; however, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte downplayed the sinking. "Do not allow a little maritime accident . . . [make us] go to war," Duterte said in his first public comment on the casualty. “Maritime incident is a maritime incident. It is best investigated."

The incident prompted an extended debate in the Philippines about the extent of Chinese influence in South China Sea and in Manila. Recto Bank is within the Philippine EEZ, and Chinese fishing vessels routinely engage in commercial operations in the region without official authorization. 

On Wednesday, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a portion of a translated letter entitled "Chinese apology on the Recto Bank collision incident." The contents suggest that it was written by a Chinese fishing industry association. 

"It was fortunate that there were no casualties. I feel deep regret that this accident had to happen and I would like to express my deep sympathy to the Filipino fishermen," the letter reads. "The shipowner of the Chinese fishing boat involved, through our Association, would like to express his sincere apology to the Filipino fishermen."

According to the letter, the Chinese fishing boat has been identified as a vessel registered in Guangdong and owned by a member of the association; however, the names of the vessel and the association were not identified. The association said that it has conducted its own inquiry and has determined that the casualty was an accident, not an intentional ramming, and that that the Chinese vessel was primarily at fault. A Philippine investigation into the sinking reached a similar conclusion. 

"The Philippine side is requested to file a specific appeal for civil compensation based on the actual loss," the letter concluded. "Our Association will urge the shipowner of the fishing boat involved to actively coordinate with the Philippine side to expedite the latter's claim for compensation."

The timing of the letter's release coincides with Duterte's latest visit to Beijing. Duterte faces domestic political pressure to confront the Chinese government on its expansionist policies in the South China Sea, including its sweeping "nine-dash line" maritime claim, which encompasses a significant portion of the Philippine EEZ. 

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and determined that China's claims have no basis in international law. China has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of this decision, and Duterte has so far declined to press Beijing on the matter, citing China's military might and the value of future Chinese investment. 

However, last week he appeared to reconsider his position. "Whether you like it or not . . . we have to talk about the arbitral ruling," he told media. He noted the ruling's relevance to negotiations between the Philippines and China over revenue sharing for possible oil and gas deposits in disputed regions of the South China Sea. 

FONOPS continue

On the day of Duterte's visit to Beijing, the American destroyer USS Wayne E. Mayer conducted a freedom of navigation (FONOPS) transit within 12 nm of both Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, two Chinese-occupied land features in the Philippine-claimed portion of the Spratly Islands. The two sites are home to large Chinese military installations built upon reclaimed land.

The Mayer's transit was intended "to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law," U.S. Navy 7th Fleet spokesperson Cmdr. Reann Mommsen said in a statement. "We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

Separately, Cmdr. Mommsen confirmed that China has denied a request for a U.S. Navy warship to call at a Chinese mainland port. U.S. media have identified the port in question as Qingdao, though not the name of the vessel involved. It marks the second time in a month that Beijing has denied access for a routine port call for a U.S. Navy vessel.