Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has accused a Chinese paramilitary vessel of ramming and sinking a Philippine fishing boat in the Reed Bank, an energy-rich and contested area in the South China Sea.

The collision, which reputedly took place on June 9, was officially acknowledged on Philippine Independence Day (June 12) and predictably sparked a new nationalistic backlash against China in the form of street protests.

More significant, Manila’s uncharacteristically stern response to the incident promises to add new fuel to rising tensions in a hotly contested and strategically crucial maritime area that threatens to tip toward superpower conflict.

China claims the Reed Bank area as part of its expansive nine-dash-line map, a wide-reaching claim that encompasses as much as 90% of the South China Sea. The feature is also included within the Philippines’ sovereign exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

To the chagrin of many Filipinos, the Chinese left the 22 Filipino crewmen in the middle of the sea without offering rescue assistance.

Vietnamese fishermen sailing in the area later rescued the seamen, according to news reports. The reports suggest that the incident may have taken place a few days earlier on June 9, which, perhaps ironically, marks Philippine-China Friendship Day.

Activists hold placards with anti-China slogans during a protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila on June 12, 2019, Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Rising Philippine-China tensions are coinciding with a more muscular American regional policy, outlined in part in a new Pentagon strategy paper for the Indo-Pacific region released on June 1 coincident with Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue defense talk shop.

Apart from promising more weaponry to regional allies, the US Coast Guard (USCGC) recently offered naval assistance to regional partners, including the Philippines, against Chinese encroachments on their respective EEZs.

While Duterte’s government has sought to engage rather than confront China, part of his so-called “independent” foreign policy, Beijing’s provocations in the South China Sea are pushing him back toward the US, with which Manila shares a mutual defense treaty.

Under president Barack Obama, the US failed to come to the Philippines’ defense during a 2012 naval standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal, another feature within Manila’s EEZ. China still occupies the shoal, which defense analysts say could be pivot to the establishment of an Aerial Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea.

For the past decade Chinese paramilitary and fishing vessels have roamed sea zones contested with the Philippines, coercively preventing Manila from developing energy resources in the gas-rich Reed Bank and other areas.

To avoid conflict, Duterte has signaled his willingness to engage in joint energy exploration deals with China, a mutually beneficial tack his government has hoped would help to resolve the stubborn disputes.

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte is running his China diplomacy through his hometown of Davao. Image: Facebook
Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte (left) has sought to engage rather than confront President Xi Jinping’s China. Image: Facebook

But despite more than a year of negotiations, the two sides are yet to sign even a preliminary agreement on joint exploration. Opposition politicians have claimed any such deal would violate the Philippine constitution and a 2016 arbitral award handed down at The Hague ruling in favor of the Philippines over China’s sea claims.

China rejected the legitimacy of the award and has gradually expanded its footprint in the area by deploying an ever larger number of paramilitary and fishing vessels deployed to surround and swarm Philippine-held features in the sea, including recently the strategic Thitu Island.

The Philippine military was the first to make a statement on the recent boat sinking, which depending on Beijing’s response could mark a dramatic escalation of the sea disputes.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a frequently outspoken critic of China’s assertiveness in Philippine waters, was the first top official to make a formal statement on the incident, openly condemning China’s “cowardly action.”

“We denounce the actions of the Chinese fishing vessel for immediately leaving the incident scene abandoning the 22 Filipino crewmen to the mercy of the elements. The [Filipino vessel] was anchored at the time when it was hit by the Chinese fishing vessel,” the Philippine defense chief added, naming the ship as the FB Gimber 1.

“This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people,” Lorenzana said.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures during a Reuters interview at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco - RTX30A9V
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. Photo: AFP

Hours later via Twitter, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr denounced the incident as “contemptible and condemnable,” especially the Chinese vessel’s “abandonment of the crew to the elements.” He also thanked Vietnamese fishermen for coming to the Filipino seamen’s rescue.

“Vietnam’s rescue will be the basis of enhanced Vietnam-Philippine military cooperation” in the future, he added, signaling a possible return to status quo ante when Manila actively cultivated closer strategic cooperation with Hanoi against Beijing under the previous Benigno Aquino administration.

Chinese authorities had not made a formal response to the incident when Asia Times went to press. And there is yet to be a thorough and impartial investigation into the exact circumstances of the incident.

Philippine military officials, however, have accused China of “intentional” orchestration of the “collision” that led to the sinking of the Philippine vessel operating in the fossil-fuel-rich area.

“If you look at the incident report, there was intentionality because the Chinese vessel didn’t stop [before collision],” acting Western Command spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Penetrante told reporters on Wednesday, in a mix of English and Tagalog. He described the incident as “hit and run” and “far from accidental.”

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Recent Chinese deployments to the area indicate that could be the case. Philippine coast guard forces said they detected the presence of a Chinese warship within the Scarborough Shoal’s territorial sea during a June 6-9 patrol. The military vessel was accompanied by Chinese paramilitary and coast guard vessels, they said.

If so, it represents the first time in years that China deployed a naval vessel to the contested area, which has been a major bone of contention in bilateral relations since a naval stand off in 2012 that resulted in China’s de facto occupation of the shoal.

In response, Philippine Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said on Tuesday, “Of course, we are always concerned on any intrusion to our sovereignty … we don’t know exactly the reason why they were there. They have to state their position on this … perhaps they have received a threat as far as they are concerned.”

Earlier this month US Coast Guard Pacific Area commander Vice-Admiral Linda Fagan indicated a new willingness to help partner nations protect their EEZs from Chinese incursions.

“We are very much interested in engaging with partner nations in using our authorities and capacity building in a way that is helpful and beneficial to particularly some of the small island nations who struggle with their own EEZ enforcement,” she said.

Fagan said the recent deployment of the USCGC Bertholf and USCGC Stratton, cutters from the Seventh Fleet usually based in Yokosuka, Japan, to the South China Sea would help partner nations like the Philippines with “law enforcement” and “capacity-building” to protect fisheries.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt leads US and Singapore navy ships in the South China Sea on April 6. The US carrier is due to be deployed with the US 7th Fleet area for maritime security operations. A training exercise on April 10 came ahead of a port call in the Philippines, one of several nations which disputes Beijing's claim to the strategic waters. Photo: AFP/ US Navy/ Anthony J Rivera
The USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier leads US and Singapore navy ships in the South China Sea in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ US Navy/ Anthony J Rivera

That US offer comes on the back of recently announced advanced surveillance drone sales to regional partners including the Philippines that promise to bolster and improve monitoring of China’s activities in the South China Sea.

Last month, the US Coast Guard conducted joint exercises with Philippine counterparts in the South China Sea, maneuvers that entailed sailing past Chinese vessels roaming in the area. The exercises notably included amphibious simulations of taking back an island occupied by enemy forces.

Duterte, who previously downgraded joint annual war-game exercises with the US to avoid irking China, has maintained he will not be led into a war over the South China Sea. But as China sinks Philippine boats and militarizes nearby contested features, his choice is increasingly acquiescence to China’s ever-expanding claims or doubling down on security cooperation with the US.