Sinking Sparks Debate Over China's Clout in South China Sea

The wreck of the Gem-Ver 1 (Malacañang)

Published Jun 19, 2019 9:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

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 has downplayed the sinking as a "little maritime accident."

"Do not allow a little maritime accident . . . [make us] go to war," Duterte said in address to the Philippine Navy on Monday, making his first comments on the casualty. “Maritime incident is a maritime incident. It is best investigated. And I do not now issue a statement because there is no investigation and there is no result."

Duterte's comments appeared to contradict initial assessments from the Armed Forces of the Philippines. "According to our report, its far from accidental. If it's accidental, it's SOP they should stop, they should rescue these fishermen. But when they hit [the boat], they didn't stop," said Lt. Col. Stephen Penetrante, a spokesman for AFP's Western Command, speaking to media on June 12. "It's like a hit and run."

The Chinese foreign ministry maintains that the incident was an accident, and on Friday, China's embassy to the Philippines said that it was not a hit and run, either: by its account, the Yuemaobinyu 42212 fled because it was "suddenly besieged by 7 or 8 Filipino fishing boats." The statement was published on the embassy's Facebook site but was later taken down. 

On Wednesday, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that Manila would pursue charges against the Chinese boat's crew for failing to assist seafarers in distress, a violation of UNCLOS. However, he echoed Duterte's suggestion that the allision was an accident, citing "information we got from some of the crew." 

The 22 survivors from the Gem-Vir 1 will receive direct compensation and assistance from multiple Philippine agencies, according to Duterte's administration. Agriculture secretary Emmanuel Piñol has been assigned to lead the effort to provide them with relief, and on Wednesday he promised to release aid of $500 per person and to provide new fiberglass boats for each of the survivors. 

The captain of the Gem-Vir 1, Junel Insigne, initially told media that the incident was an intentional ramming. After a personal visit from Piñol on Wednesday, Insigne told GMA News that he was not so sure.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, an opponent of the Duterte administration's authoritarian domestic policies, has been outspoken in her criticism of his approach to the Reed Bank incident. In a widely-cited statement on Twitter, she accused him of a "feckless and spineless" approach to dealing with China.