‘Duterte should demand compensation over Recto Bank incident’

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 19) — President Rodrigo Duterte should demand compensation from China over the sinking of a Filipino fishing vessel that left 22 fishermen to their fate at sea, an opposition lawmaker said.

“It is not something aggressive if we request from China to hold their fishermen accountable and compensate [for] the damages done to the fishermen,” outgoing Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano told CNN Philippines’ The Source.

Duterte, in the first public statement he issued more than a week after the incident, appeared to echo the statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which characterized the mishap as a “maritime traffic accident.” The President called it a “maritime accident.”

Alejano said he found Duterte's statement lacking, adding that the President should have said he is grateful that the fishermen are safe and should have thanked the Vietnamese fishermen who saved them.

The government has yet to outrightly demand for compensation from China over the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat. Palace officials have only said that whoever is found to be at fault for the incident should pay reparations.

"'Yun ding mga nasa Chinese government, sa pamamagitan ng ambassador, ay ina-assure na rin tayo na iimbestigahan nila at kung malaman nilang may kasalanan ay magkakaroon ng punitive action. Sinabi na rin natin na kailangan magkaroon ng compensation kung makikita natin na sila talaga ang may kasalanan," Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo told CNN Philippines’ Newsroom Ngayon.

[Translation: Those in the Chinese government, through the ambassador, have assured us that they are investigating this and if they find out that there are people at fault, then there will be a punitive action. We have also said that there needs to be compensation if we would see that they are truly at fault.]

For now, Alejano said the Philippine government is treading cautiously on the issue, avoiding to pin the blame on China over the incident.

“The consistency of the President na ingat na ingat siya pagdating sa [he’s so careful when it comes to] China, why? We’re waiting for loans from China to fund our Build, Build, Build. So ingat na ingat tayo [we are so cautious,]” Alejano said.

Duterte has cozied up to China, whom he identified in speeches as one of the main funders for the government's ambitious Build, Build, Build infrastructure program.

His pivot to the Asian giant despite its encroachment in the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea claimed by Manila, has been criticized by some sectors. Critics also slam the administration for its failure to bring up the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling that largely favored the Philippines and voided China’s claims to practically the entire South China Sea.

Chinese militia?

Duterte said he is avoiding making any comment on the incident until full results come from a probe of the incident.

Manila and Beijing are already investigating the incident. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte favors a joint probe with China.

The captain of the Filipino fishing boat Gem Ver believes that the Chinese vessel intentionally hit them on June 9 at Recto Bank, but Beijing has said that its vessel “was suddenly besieged by seven or eight Filipino boats” which caused what it called "a collision" with the Philippine boat.

The story about the Chinese ship being besieged by Filipino boats is no longer included in the new statement of Beijing’s Foreign Ministry.

Alejano and Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio suspect that the Chinese vessel is actually part of Beijing’s militia, which pursues the Asia giant’s objectives at sea.

“They can swarm a certain island, they can block a Navy ship. That is the strategy of China to deny that they are involved in any objective kasi civilian ‘yan eh. Kapag ikaw pinatulan mo ang [because they are civilians. If you attack a] civilian, ikaw ang talo [you lose,]” Alejano said.

The incident has prompted calls for the Philippines to invoke its Mutual Defense treaty with the United States, which provides that both countries will aid each other in case of a foreign armed attack.

However, Palace officials have pointed out that this could not be used as the Recto Bank incident is not an armed attack.

Alejano, who is a former Marine captain, also doubts that the agreement could be used in this instance.

So far, the Philippines said it has filed a diplomatic protest against China over the incident. It has also raised the mishap to the International Maritime Organization and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin Jr. underscored the need to help distressed people at sea in a speech at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires vessels to come to the aid of distressed ships unless it would pose a danger to them.

CNN Philippines’ Anjo Calimario and Lara Tan contributed to this report.