Vietnam claims that one of its fishing boats was sunk by a Chinese vessel in disputed waters. Last year, the same happened to a Philippine boat. The Chinese are increasing their presence in waters claimed by the Philippines. Despite this, Duterte wants to reduce tensions with China.
Manila (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Philippines is siding with Vietnam over its dispute with China after a Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk in the South China Sea.
Manila yesterday said it was deeply concerned about the incident, which took place on 2 April in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands.
Hanoi claims that a Chinese coast guard ship rammed one of its trawlers inside Vietnamese territorial waters. Beijing retorted that the Vietnamese boat were in Chinese waters, and that the vessel hit the Chinese ship, and then sank.
For Philippine authorities, the sinking is a provocation. For this reason, they expressed their solidarity to the Vietnamese government, noting that they found themselves in the same situation in the past.
Last year, a Chinese trawler rammed a Philippine fishing boat near Recto Bank, a tablemount[*] near Spratly islands, which are claimed by both China and the Philippines. A Vietnamese boat rescued the 22 Philippine fishermen after several hours at sea.
In its statement, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said that the Recto Bank incident harmed relations with China whilst strengthening ties with Vietnam.
For the Philippines, the incident is even more serious since several countries are involved in discussions on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
China claims almost 90 per cent of this vast body of water. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and, to some extent, Indonesia, oppose China’s maritime claims.
This has not stopped Beijing from militarising some islands in the sea. To contain China’s expansion, US warships carry out regular patrols near these military outposts.
Washington slammed Beijing for the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat, and accuses China of exploiting the pandemic crisis to gain ground in the region.
Manila's reaction to the latest incident in the Paracels was unexpected. Since his election in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has done his best to build a privileged relationship with China.
Unlike his predecessor, he has sought to reduce tensions in the South China Sea, ignoring a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague that described Chinese maritime claims as “baseless”.
In February, Duterte also announced plans to scrap a troop agreement with the United States. However, Philippine public opinion is quite sensitive to the issue of maritime disputes with China. Beijing's latest moves have only worsened the situation.
In the past month, a Chinese coast guard ship sailed near Second Thomas Shoal, a sandbank in Spratly Islands that is occupied by a Philippine army garrison.
In March, Beijing also completed the construction of two research stations on as many islets (Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs) in the area, also claimed by Manila.
[*] In marine geology, a tablemount, also known as guyot, is an underwater mountain of volcanic formation.