Philippines’ Duterte Keeps Silent on Chinese Ship Sinking, Spokesman Says He Is ‘Very Cautious’

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-LakasBayan (PDP-LABAN) meeting in Manila on May 11, 2019 ahead of the mid-term elections on May 13. (Photo by Noel CELIS / AFP) (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

A spokesman for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte described the notoriously foul-mouthed head of state as “very cautious” on Friday after local media began observing that he has not weighed in on what officials called the “barbaric” sinking of a Philippine ship by a presumed Chinese vessel in Philippine territorial waters.

The ship in question was anchored near Recto Bank, a fishing spot near the Philippine Spratly islands and inside sovereign Philippine territory, when a vessel that crew members believe to be Chinese rammed into it, sunk the ship, and fled the scene without offering to rescue the crew, leaving them to drown. They survived thanks to the generosity of a Vietnamese ship that sailed by and found them hours later.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has declared what appears to be an attack an “ordinary maritime accident” and stated that it will investigate to confirm the Chinese identity of the offending ship.

The incident is made all the more egregious by China’s refusal to accept the illegality of its presence in the region for years. China claims the Spratly Islands, which the Philippines and Vietnam share, in addition to nearly the entire South China Sea. In addition to those two nations, China’s claims span the territory of Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and waters off the coast of Indonesia. A 2016 international legal ruling found that China’s constructions in the Spratly and Paracel Islands were illegal, but China vowed to ignore the ruling and continue building military assets there.

Duterte has not made any public comments about the sunken fishing vessel since the Philippine government made the incident public this week. According to the Philippine Star, Duterte has had three chances to remark on the matter in public. Instead, the Star reported:

In his latest speech, Duterte talked about his family, the New People’s Army, Boracay island rehabilitation, reason he appointed former military men to his Cabinet, his attraction to beautiful women, Kapa Ministry International Inc. alleged scam, rant against former Sen. Francisco “Kit” Tatad, effects of using Viagra, and his lashing out at Canada for dumping trash in our islands.

Duterte also went on a public rant this week about how much he hates being president of the Philippines.

“I lost my enthusiasm to work. Actually, I deeply regretted it. I regretted my decision to run for president,” he said. “I never lost an election. So since 1988, I was rising until I became President of this Republic. But if you ask me if I’m happy now, I won’t lie. Why would I? I do not have any obligation to you to lie, to tell a lie. I’m sick and tired of this,” he grumbled.

He went on to warn his daughter, who some have touted as a presidential hopeful, “Don’t do it. … They will disrespect you, those sons of bitches.”

Salvador Panelo, the official presidential palace (Malacanang) spokesman, said in an interview this morning that Duterte’s silence was proof of his measured nature. “The president is a very cautious man. If you notice, he makes calibrated responses,” the Star quotes him as saying.

Duterte is one of the few remaining senior officials in his administration not to opine on the ship sinking. Panelo himself referred to the attack as “barbaric, uncivilized and outrageous” and threatened to “cut diplomatic relations” with China.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the cowardly action of the suspected Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement Wednesday. “This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people.”

The national news outlet Rappler notes that Lorenzana later walked back confirmation that the offending ship was, in fact, Chinese.

“We are just relying on the statement of the fishermen that the ship that hit them was a Chinese ship,” he said on Thursday. “That was my only basis when I said it was Chinese. Now we will still get an inquiry, we will ask the Vietnamese, the Vietnam side, the Chinese side, if they already have such a report.”

The Philippines also issued a formal diplomatic complaint to China, presumably under Duterte’s orders.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has neither confirmed nor denied that the ship was, indeed, Chinese. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called the incident an “ordinary maritime accident” and stated, “If the relevant reports are true, regardless of the country from which the perpetrator came from, their behavior should be condemned.”

Geng also condemned Philippine government officials for allegedly seeking to “politicize the incident without verification.”

Duterte’s lack of remarks about the incident prompted attention in light of significant criticism in his home country of insufficiently confronting China. The Philippines won the only international legal case on record against China’s colonization of the South China Sea, yet Duterte has made no moves to enforce it. He has instead courted closer ties to Beijing, particularly economic ones, and dismissed demands for a stronger response when China invades Philippine territory. While he personally remains a popular president three years into his tenure, polls indicate his China policy does not. A survey published in November found that 84 percent of Philippine respondents disapproved of Duterte’s friendliness with China, and Duterte’s approval numbers have dipped lowest when he promotes closer relations with China.

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