BANGKOK – President Duterte has accepted the offer of China to jointly investigate with Philippine authorities the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea last June 9.
“The Palace wishes to inform our people that President Duterte welcomes and accepts the offer of the Chinese government to conduct a joint investigation to determine what really transpired in Recto Bank and find a satisfactory closure to this episode,” chief presidential legal adviser and spokesman Salvador Panelo said yesterday.
After agreeing to China’s offer, Duterte ordered the creation of a joint investigating committee to be composed of one representative each from Manila and Beijing, and another from a neutral country.
“To this end, the President wants the creation of a joint investigating committee that shall be composed of three groups of highly qualified and competent individuals, with Philippines and China having one representative each, and a third member coming from a neutral country,” Panelo said.
The Palace’s pronouncement was a rejection of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s position against a joint inquiry as pushed by Panelo and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra.
Panelo announced President Duterte’s decision hours after the President landed in Bangkok to participate in the 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) summit.
By agreeing to China’s proposal, the Philippines is not in any way putting on the back burner the welfare of the fishermen and possibly giving up the Philippines’ sovereign rights over Recto Bank, which is in the country’s exclusive economic zone, Panelo stressed.
“To be clear, we are by no means relinquishing any inch of our sovereign rights, nor compromising the rights of our 22 fishermen. We are demanding justice for our countrymen, and we are using all legal means toward that end,” he said.
He admitted that “joint and separate investigations by the two countries may raise speculation and accusation of bias.”
He added that “such circumstance will put any finding by any side open to question and place the entire issue in a confused state.”
He also pointed out that a joint probe will be in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The UNCLOS places paramount emphasis on the use of peaceful means to resolve international disputes, he added.
“The duty of seafarers to rescue those at peril in the sea is a well entrenched principle of international law, maritime law and humanitarian law as well,” he said.
“The basic dictates of justice demand a full account of the events that ultimately led to the abandonment of our 22 distressed fishermen in the middle of the sea and accountability of those at fault,” Panelo said.
He said the government is eager to achieve closure on the issue, but without sacrificing accountability.
Asked what closure should be like, he said there should be admission of guilt, compensation and even a proper apology if necessary.
“Hindi tayo nagpapatalo (We don’t let ourselves be defeated),” Panelo said.
If the Chinese would be proven to have abandoned the distressed fishermen, then “they should be held accountable,” he stressed,
He said he is banking on the assurance of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua that “they cannot condone any irrational behavior” with regard to the Recto Bank incident.
“Is it an accident, is there a compensation… as the ambassador says and I agree with him, there are no issues that the best of friends cannot agree on, meaning to say, madaling pag-usapan yun (we can talk it over),” Panelo said.
Former foreign affairs chief and now Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano said it is important that any investigation would be independent and credible to Filipinos.
“Whether it’s separate or joint, it’s important that it remains credible and no nonsense,” Cayetano said.
“There are advantages and disadvantages… the perception in a joint investigation is one will influence the other, that is not necessarily the case, there were incidents in international relations that (resort to joint investigation),” he said.
Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said the Philippine Coast Guard and the Marina had submitted the results of their investigation to Malacañang and proper agencies. He declined to share details of the report.
Locsin, meanwhile, said there is no proof that the Chinese vessel that rammed the Philippine fishing vessel was a militia boat.
“No scintilla of proof it was militia boat,” Locsin wrote on Twitter yesterday.
“Our maritime officers hit ground running getting the facts. Philippine Navy responded swiftly; met Vietnamese rescuers to take the Filipino crew on board & re-float the boat whose stern had been ripped off. PH fishing boat had no assigned lookout,” he added.
The secretary was responding to an inquiry about his observations of the Navy’s actions on the West Philippine Sea and the presence of Chinese militia.
United States ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim earlier warned that an attack by the Chinese militia on Filipino vessels may trigger the mutual defense treaty of the two countries.
Still on Twitter, Locsin maintained that a diplomatic protest had been filed in relation to the incident.
“When I say DFA filed a diplomatic protest, it was filed. How dare you doubt it,” he said in response to a tweet noting that the supposed protest was not publicly released.
“Every violation reported by West Philippine Sea Task Force has triggered a diplomatic protest,” he added.
He stressed that the main focus for the DFA is the abandonment of fishermen to the elements, whether deliberately or accidentally.
For Sen. Risa Hontiveros, any joint investigation into the Recto Bank incident with Beijing would only end up favoring China.
“Any joint probe with an evasive Chinese government will be, quite literally, ‘lutong macao (rigged)’,” Hontiveros said in a statement.
She said China continues to evade any accountability for its citizens’ actions in the West Philippine Sea.
“If China only intends to whitewash the incident and is unwilling to bring her erring citizens to justice for their acts, then any joint probe will be an exercise in futility,” she said.
China’s initial actions and pronouncements on the issue, she said, “do not inspire confidence that it will be a cooperative partner in seeking justice for our aggrieved fisherfolk.”
She recalled that China’s previous statements on the issue had been “nothing but flat denials” of any liability of the crew of Chinese vessel Yuemaobinyu 42212 which, according to the Filipino fishermen’s accounts, rammed and abandoned their boat Gem-Vir 1, and left them floundering in the water until their rescue by Vietnamese fishermen.
She noted the Chinese claim of being “besieged by Filipino boats” had been debunked by matching accounts of the incident from both the crew of the F/B Gem-Vir 1 and the Vietnamese nationals who rescued them.
“With statements like those, can we really expect them to be our partner in searching for truth and accountability in this incident? Can we really expect that the investigation will not be a farce to the detriment of our people and sovereignty?” she said.
“President Duterte should listen to his own DFA secretary. The Philippines should not be a willing party to any joint investigation whose goal is to deny that an injustice has been committed against our people within our territorial waters,” Hontiveros said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, for his part, voiced support for a joint investigation as long at it includes an independent third party representative. – Janvic Mateo, Paolo Romero
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