China probes ramming of Filipino boat in disputed waters

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 14) — China has launched a "serious" investigation into the incident that a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank an anchored Filipino boat in the West Philippine Sea, its envoy said.

Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, in a text message to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Sal Panelo on Friday, said there will be retribution if the erring fishermen are proven to be Chinese — despite clear statements of Philippine officials.

"The fishing boat issue is being thoroughly and seriously investigated. If it were true that it was Chinese fishing boat which did it, they would be duly educated and punished for their irresponsible behavior," Zhao said.

The envoy referred to the collision of the anchored Filipino boat near Recto or Reed Bank as an "incident" that can happen despite regulations.

On Independence Day, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed that a foreign vessel hit the anchored Filipino vessel F/B GEMVIR 1 near Recto Bank (international name: Reed Bank) on June 9. He said the crew of the vessel did not rescue 22 local fishermen after their boat sank. Lt. Col. Stephen Penetrante, acting Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command spokesperson, likened the event to a hit-and-run. The 22 Filipino fishermen were later rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.

The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest on Wednesday. The government also warned the Philippines could end diplomatic relations with China if it is proven that the Chinese fishing vessel "intentionally" sank the Filipino boat.

Despite the remarks of Philippine officials, Duterte remains mum as the issue continues to heat up. He delivered a speech in General Santos City on Thursday, but did not mention the collison. Duterte has been criticized for pursuing friendly ties with China despite the East Asian giant's incursions in areas the West Philippine Sea.

Reed Bank, an 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.

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.