After days of top-level silence, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte finally spoke out on the June 9 collision between a Chinese and Filipino vessel that sank the latter in the South China Sea.

The controversial incident sparked new rounds of anti-China protests in Manila, notably at a time the United States and its allies are ramping up new muscular resistance to China’s wide-reaching claims in the contested and strategic waterway.

Speaking before Philippine Navy officers on June 17, the Filipino leader downplayed the collision as an “[ordinary] maritime incident,” which should not be cause for alarm or setback warming bilateral relations with China.

He also ruled out deploying warships to the Reed Bank, an energy-rich area within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), where the inflammatory incident took place.

(The Philippine Navy revealed today (June 18) plans to purchase corvettes and eight fast attack craft armed with missiles that are expected to be deployed in the South China Sea. The navy will also take delivery of two new frigates from South Korea in April and September next year.)

Duterte has instead called for a thorough investigation into the boat-ramming incident which is acceptable by both sides and verifies the exact details of the incident.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, April 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool

“It is best investigated. I don’t issue a statement now because there’s no investigation and no result,” the Philippine president said, refusing to blame China categorically. “The only thing we can do is wait and give the other party [China] the right to be heard.”

Duterte’s diplomatic statement was widely perceived as a climbdown and drew widespread criticism across the country.

Critics say his position on the politically-charged incident almost perfectly mirrors China’s, much to the dismay of victims of the incident, many in the government and the broader Philippine public.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials earlier claimed that the implicated Chinese vessel, Yuemaobinyu 4221, was “besieged by seven or eight Filipino boats”, thus the collision and its subsequent decision to abandon the drowning Filipino fishermen.

Following Duterte’s speech, Jonel Insigne, the captain of the sunken Filipino vessel, told the media that “we are saddened with what our beloved president said, it’s like he just ignored our boat getting hit, as if it’s just a trivial incident since no one died.”

“Is [he] waiting for us to die?” the distraught fishing captain said, expressing his dismay with Duterte’s soft-pedaling on China and dismissive description of the incident. “When we were drowning, some of us ran, others fell into the sea, others were holding on to the [sinking] boat. It was Vietnamese [fishermen] who saved us.”

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

Over the weekend, the fishing vessel’s captain refused to meet Duterte, claiming that he was too traumatized by the incident. To many, it was a not-so-subtle expression of his dismay at the lack of support from the president, who has come under rising fire for his seeming acquiescence to China.

Felix dela Torre, the owner of the sunk boat, told media in a now widely quoted comment on June 15: “I feel like we’re slaves of China. It’s like we have no rights in our own territories.”

Duterte’s position also openly contradicted the Philippine military’s top brass, including his Defense Secretary Delfin Lorezana, who earlier (June 12) accused the Chinese vessel of intentionally ramming the Filipino fishing boat and leaving its 22 crewmen to drown on high seas in the middle of night.

“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 said soon after the June 9 incident.

“This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people,” Lorenzana said, denouncing what he characterized as China’s “cowardly action.”

Philippines' Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures as he delivers a speech during the closing ceremony of the annual joint US-Philippines military exercise in Manila on May 19, 2017. The Philippines and the United States launched annual military exercises on May 8 but the longtime allies scaled them down which focuses only on counter-terrorism and disaster relief in line with President Rodrigo Duterte's pivot to China and Russia. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana delivers a speech during a closing ceremony of an annual joint US-Philippines military exercise, Manila, May 19, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

More recently, the Philippine Navy’s chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad described the incident as “not a normal accident”, since the Filipino vessel “was rammed” while it “was anchored when the incident happened.”

He lashed out at the Chinese vessel for abandoning the drowning Filipino fishermen, lamenting “what kind of person are you if you do that?”

A day after Duterte’s speech, his own Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles told the media (June 18), in a mix of English and Tagalog, that based on “initial findings by different agencies of the government… it looks like an ‘allision’…whereby [the Filipino vessel] was anchored [when it was hit].”

Meanwhile, political opposition groups have lambasted the president for his days-long silence and perceived soft-pedaling vis-à-vis Beijing.

They have also laid blame on Chinese authorities for either abetting or not restraining aggressive maneuvers by their militia-cum-fishermen in various contested areas of the South China Sea, including around the Philippine-occupied Thitu island.

South China Sea-Map-Reefs-China-Philippines copy

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo, for one, asked the president to abandon his perceived as “passive” China policy, epitomized in one utterance in which Dutete suggested the Philippines become a “Chinese province, while calling for the trial and prosecution of he Chinese vessel’s crew on Philippine soil.

“This is the time where we expect our leaders to be true to their oath and speak, act and do what is needed to defend the dignity of our nation,” the vice president posted on her Facebook page on June 16.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, one of the most outspoken statesman on the South China Sea disputes, said the collision was “highly likely” intentional.

He blamed Chinese authorities directly, claiming that the incident was the upshot of Beijing’s efforts to “start of a new ‘gray zone’ offensive by China to drive away Filipino fishing vessels” from contested areas through deployment of increasingly aggressive militia forces.

Chinese fishing vessels are known to receive fuel subsidies, electronic communication systems and often-explicit support from Chinese authorities, coast guard forces and the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Navy personnel of Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Navy personnel of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Via Twitter

Analysts say it is all part of Beijing’s plan for dominating what it treats and sees as its “blue national soil,” which includes the South China Sea, a sine qua non for the fulfillment of Xi’s so-called “Chinese dream.”

As such, China’s fishermen-cum-militia vessels are seen by some as a tip of the dagger of the country’s “people’s war at sea” strategy, which employs a “whole of nation” approach to pushing the boundaries of Beijing’s claims in adjacent waters.

According to Beijing’s “Tianxia” doctrine, China is at the heart of concentric circles of Chinese domination and civilizational sophistication radiating across East Asia and beyond, a world view that necessarily entails domination of the nearby South China Sea.

Viewed through this prism, many in Manila believe that the incident at Reed Bank was either the result of China’s explicit or implicit support to increasingly adventurous and violent Chinese fishermen-cum-militia forces in the South China Sea.

A high-level Filipino defense official who requested anonymity said that the government is currently working to negotiate specific confidence-building measures with China to prevent a recurrence of ramming incidents at sea.

But, the official says, it’s not clear yet that Beijing would be willing to engage in such a diplomatic process.