A spokesman for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte suggested Monday that the country could invoke a mutual defense treaty with the United States to involve America in its ongoing dispute with China over a Philippine fishing vessel sunk in a “hit and run” accident in sovereign Philippine territory.
A mutual defense treaty has bound America to the Philippines since 1951, requiring both parties to “act to meet the common dangers” in the event of “an armed attack in the Pacific Area.” Should the Philippines confirm that the ship sinking, which occurred in its sovereign territory near the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, is an attack, Washington may be duty-bound to issue a military response or present the case before the United Nations.
The Philippine government revealed last week that a ship believed to be Chinese rammed into an anchored Philippine fishing vessel near Recto Bank in the Spratly Island region. The Chinese ship sunk the Philippine ship and left, leaving the crew to die. A Vietnamese ship ultimately found the wreckage and saved the Philippine crew.
China has since confirmed that the “hit and run” ship was Chinese, but alleged that its crew confirmed the safety of the sunken ship before departing the scene, a claim the Philippine crew denies.
“If that is what is stated in the treaty, then we will follow that–if that is the agreement,” Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters during a briefing Monday, responding to a question asking if Manila would consider invoking the treaty to respond to China’s aggression. “Whatever the agreement tells us to do, we will do that,” he added.
According to the Manila Bulletin, Panelo received the question after U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Kim Sung said on Philippine television that the State Department is aware of the treaty and ready to live up to it if necessary.
“[US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] made clear that because the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, under the treaty itself, any armed attack on Filipino vessels, Filipino aircraft will trigger our obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Kim said.
Panelo stated clearly that the issue with invoking the treaty is that Manila would have to confirm that the sinking of the ship was, indeed, an attack. Chinese government officials initially called it a “maritime incident” and stated they are investigating to confirm that it was an accident.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters that Beijing had determined the sinking was the product of “an accidental collision” and referred to the Chinese ship as a “fishing vessel.”
“I’d like to stress that this is only an accidental collision between fishing boats at sea. It is irresponsible and counter-constructive to link this incident with China-Philippines friendship or even make political interpretations out of it,” Lu said. “In a highly responsible attitude, China will continue to earnestly investigate into this matter. We are ready to enhance communication with the Philippine side on the investigation, increase understanding, dispel mistrust and find out what actually happened.”
Chinese authorities confirmed that the offending ship was, in fact, Chinese, on Saturday, identifying the ship as the Yuemaobinyu 42212. China’s embassy in Manila reportedly said in a statement that the vessel “bumped into” the anchored Philippine ship, sinking it.
“The Chinese captain tried to rescue the Filipino fisherman, but was afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats,” the statement claimed.
As the Philippine Star notes, the crew of the sunken ship said they were forced to float on the water for hours to survive because there were no other boats in the area until a Vietnamese vessel sailed by, raising questions as to which alleged Filipino fishing boats the Chinese ship was so afraid of.
Even if the Chinese Communist Party can confirm that the sinking was accidental, that would still not explain what the ship was doing near Recto Bank in the first place. The Spratly Islands are Philippine and Vietnamese sovereign territory. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled that China’s claims in the South China Sea, particularly those over the Philippines, were invalid, and any Chinese presence or construction in those territories was illegal.
China claims territory in the South China Sea belonging to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Beijing insisted on ignoring the Hague ruling when it was issued and has continued to build military facilities in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Duterte has not challenged China’s presence in Philippine waters.
Panelo confirmed that Chinese ships are not legally allowed to fish in Recto Bank, but claimed that there was no confirmation that the Chinese ship was doing so there. Asked if they could fish, Panelo said, “Of course not, but we do not know yet if they are fishing there.”
“As a matter of policy, we always say that we will not allow an assault of our sovereignty. That has not changed,” Panelo added. “Sovereignty is never a subject of negotiation.”
Panelo’s tentative remarks on the incident contrast significantly to his initial statement on the matter last week.
“We will not allow ourselves to be assaulted, to be bullied, to be the subject of such barbaric, uncivilised and outrageous actions from any source,” he said at the time. “We will cut diplomatic relations, that’s what you do whenever there are aggressive acts.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also said last week that he had “fired off a diplomatic protest” in response to the “hit and run” against the Philippine ship.
Conspicuously quiet in the aftermath of the incident is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, notorious for sounding off undiplomatically on everything from child molestation in the Catholic Church to Viagra usage to rape, did not comment on the matter until late Monday.
“A maritime incident is a maritime incident. I will not issue a statement because there is no investigation and no result. Wait and give the other party the right to be heard. China, what is the truth here?” he asked.
Duterte, 74, then implied that he was too old to take any military action against China.
“You know, I would like that [military action] — if it were up to me, I want action. But I am not in my boyhood age anymore,” he said. “You know, we are ruled as a civilized nation, and as members of the community by the laws that govern whatever happen in the seas as we go along our business. There will be rules for a military confrontation, there will be rules for a mistaken identity attack, there is a rule for fishermen’s boats, there is a rule for an aircraft carrier bumping a fishing boat.”