190626 Rodrigo Duterte
Rodrigo Duterte Image Credit: Reuters

Manila: President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines says a government investigation has found that the recent sinking of a Filipino boat by a Chinese vessel in the disputed South China Sea was an ordinary maritime mishap that should not strain ties between the two countries.

His statement, made Monday, comes amid nearly daily protests by Philippine nationalist groups over the incident. The demonstrators are pressing China to turn over the crew of the ship that rammed the smaller Filipino boat two weeks ago, sending its 22 crew members into the waters near Reed Bank before they were rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.

Reed Bank is well within the Philippines' internationally recognized exclusive economic zone, but China claims that area and virtually all the rest of the South China Sea. The mineral-rich maritime region, a vital waterway for international shipping, is also claimed in whole or in part by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

An international tribunal in The Hague ruled in 2016 in favor of maritime claims by the Philippines, but China has ignored that decision. Beijing has instead ramped up the construction of artificial islands in the area despite agreements with some Southeast Asian countries to cease such activities.

Duterte, who has courted China as a strategic partner since he was elected in 2016 and has visited four times as president, called the ramming of the fishing boat "a maritime incident" Monday.

"There was no confrontation," he said. "There was no bloody violence."

"Well, I'm sorry, but that's how it is," he added.

He said he did not mean to belittle the suffering of the 22 Filipino fishermen, who identified the vessel that struck their boat as Chinese and claimed that it turned around and quickly fled the site.

"There was damage, but luckily nobody died," Duterte said.

There was no confrontation, There was no bloody violence.

- Rodrigo Duterte | President of the Philippines

The president has been cautioning about the prospect of a war at sea and warning nationalist groups not to provoke tensions that could lead to conflict. Duterte said that if the tensions spun out of control, the consequences would be "terrible."

Antonio Carpio, a Supreme Court senior justice and an expert on the South China Sea disputes, has urged Duterte's government to send stronger signals that the Philippines will not tolerate Chinese aggression in the region.

He has said that the ramming was most likely intentional, given that China's maritime militia is under the command of the government through its army. Before the latest incident, the maritime militia had been ramming Vietnamese vessels elsewhere in the South China Sea for years, Carpio has noted.

"This is the first time that a Chinese maritime militia vessel has rammed a Filipino fishing vessel," Carpio said in a statement June 14. "Previously, Chinese maritime militia vessels just loitered in the territorial sea of Pagasa Island and other Philippine-occupied geologic features in the Spratlys, intimidating the Filipino occupants of these features."

The ramming of the vessel "is a quantum escalation of China's aggressive acts," Carpio said, stressing that it could signal the start of a new Chinese "gray zone" offensive to drive Filipino vessels from the South China Sea.

"The Filipino people must take a strong stand against this latest aggressive act of China," he said, urging the government to demand punishment for the captain and crew of the Chinese vessel.