Duterte spokesman says cutting PH-China ties possible if boat ramming is 'intentional'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 13) — The Philippines could end diplomatic relations with China if it is proven that a Chinese fishing vessel "intentionally" sank a Filipino boat in the West Philippine Sea, the presidential spokesman said Thursday as he talked about possible scenarios arising from the boat ramming incident.

"If it's intentional, it's an act of aggression... E ano pang step (What will be the next step)? E 'di we will cut off diplomatic relations," Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a media briefing on Thursday.

"First, magdidoplomatic protest ka, kung hindi ka kuntento sa paliwanag nila at nakita natin na talagang sinadya, e ibang usapan yun," he added, noting that authorities are still investigating the incident.

[Translation: "First, you'll file a diplomatic protest, if you are not contented with the explanation and find that it was intentional, that is a different thing."]

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. said he filed a diplomatic protest on Wednesday after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced and condemned the "cowardly action" of the Chinese crew. Lorenzana said a foreign vessel hit the anchored Filipino boat near Recto Bank on June 9, and did not stop to help 22 local fishermen, whose boat sank.

Also known as Reed Bank, the underwater feature in the West Philippine Sea is claimed by both the Philippines and China. The West Philippine Sea is a portion being claimed by the Philippines within the long-contested waters of South China Sea.

The area is seen as a potential flash point and tensions have risen in recent years because of China's building there of artificial islands and installation of weapons that could be used to intimidate other claimant countries.

Locsin in a tweet said he filed the protest "quietly," but did not give anymore details.

Palace: Probe, punish Chinese crew

Malacañang, meanwhile, called on the Chinese government to investigate the Chinese crew for abandoning the Filipino fishermen, and impose the proper sanctions.

"The present territorial conflict between the countries of the two colliding vessels pertaining to the area where the collision occurred, is not - and can not be an impediment for the offending vessel to lend a hand to the distressed crew," Panelo said. "We call on the appropriate Chinese authorities to probe the collision and impose the proper sanctions to the Chinese crew."

While officials use the term "collision" to refer to the incident, the Armed Forces' Western Command (WesCom) likened it to a hit-and-run, that could be intentional.

"Naka-anchor kasi gabi na po, pagkatapos ito po ay nabangga nitong Chinese vessel, yan, and after the collision the Chinese vessel immediately umalis po e, tumakas, parang hit-and-run," Lt. Col. Stephen Penetrante, acting WesCom spokesperson told reporters Wednesday night.

[Translation: It was anchored because it was night time, and then it was hit by the Chinese vessel. After the collision, the Chinese vessel immediately left, ran way, like a hit-and-run.]

Panelo said, "Regardless of the nature of the collision, whether it was accidental or intentional, common decency and the dictates of humanity require the immediate saving of the crew of the downed Philippine vessel."

He added that the government is now assisting the fishermen who were later rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.

Not a friendly act

The incident occured on June 9, which happened to be the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Day. Officials have said what the Chinese vessel did was not how supposed allies should treat each other.

Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros called on President Rodrigo Duterte to recall the country's ambassador and consuls to China, similar to what he did when Canada failed to take back tons of illegally dumped garbage.

"The order should remain in full effect until the Chinese government has done the following," Hontiveros said in a statement, adding that China should explain why its fishing vessel is in the West Philippine Sea, identify and punish the crew involved, and promise that it won't happen again.

Outgoing Senator Antonio Trillanes IV urged the government to report the incident to the International Maritime Organization, an agency under the United Nations, which could conduct an independent probe.

Likewise, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario suggests a multilateral approach, urging the government "accept that Beijing has absolutely no respect for the rule of law."

Del Rosario was among those who filed a complaint against Chinese President Xi Jinping over the alleged militarization of artificial islands, damage to marine environment, and harassment of Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea. The Palace has distanced himself from this move.

Locsin said Duterte will have the final say, urging critics to just wait for the government's actions.

What is Reed Bank?

Reed Bank is one of the features that lie within the country's 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, according to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The country claims Reed Bank as part of the province of Palawan, as it is only 85 nautical miles away from Philippine shores. Meanwhile, China rejects the arbitral ruling and continues to claim virtually the entire South China Sea.

Duterte has been criticized for pursuing friendly ties with China despite the East Asian giant's incursions in areas the West Philippine Sea.

The government earlier protested the swarming of Chinese vessels around Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island and Chinese fishermen's harvesting of giant clams, locally known as taklobos, in Scarborough Shoal.