MANILA, Philippines – Contrary to what Chinese authorities previously claimed, the Chinese ship involved in the sinking of Philippine fishing boat Gem-Ver in the West Philippine Sea had been "explicitly connected" to state-backed activities, an international think tank said.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said publicly available data on the history of Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu 42212 involved in the sinking of Gem-Ver in Recto Bank "strongly suggests the 42212 is more than just a normal fishing boat."
What the data says: The findings published on October 15 and shared with subscribers on Wednesday, Ocotber 16, included records showing the ship operates from Bohe Port located in the Dianbai District, which is known to house an established Chinese maritime militia unit.
Bohe port, where the Chinese vessel is based, is also where "fishing vessels are conscripted for paramilitary exercises in preparation for maritime combat," AMTI said.
After the incident was exposed on Philippine Independence Day, June 12, experts raised questions on whether or not the Chinese ship involved in the sinking of Gem-Ver was part of Beijing's maritime militia. However, AMTI said publicly available data was not enough to definitively answer if the vessel was part of it.
Even so, the data nonetheless showed that the Chinese ship was "explicitly connected" to the Chinese government. In particular, the ship, previously named the "Yuedianyu 42212" was used to conduct state-backed maritime research in the South China Sea.
"During its time as the Yuedianyu 42212, the ship was commissioned for government-backed fisheries research on multiple occasions. In 2012, scholars from Shanghai Ocean University and Guangdong Ocean University rented it for research in waters off Sansha City on Woody Island in the Paracels," AMTI said.
Aside from this, the think tank said the vessel was also used by several research institutes and government agencies for tuna fishing experiments in the South China Sea.
The same Chinese vessel earlier rammed, sank, and abandoned Gem-Ver and its 22 fishermen, who were left to the elements in the open sea for hours. The fishermen were later saved by a Vietnamese vessel. (READ: The sinking of Gem-Ver: Barko! May babanggang barko!)
Why this matters: The AMTI said the new findings strongly suggest the Chinese ship does not operate solely as a commercial fishing ship and "raises the question of whether the collision with the Gem-Ver was intentional."
Two months after the sinking, the owner of the Chinese vessel involved apologized to the fishermen of Gem-Ver in a letter coursed through the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association and Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. This was made on the same day President Rodrigo Duterte was to leave for an official visit to China.
Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta Romana earlier said the public apology of the Chinese ship owner was a "breakthrough" and signalled the incident was one step closer to being fully settled.
But for AMTI director Greg Poling, further investigation into the incident should take these new findings into account.
"We've found enough evidence that I think Manila should demand more answers. It should seek more information about the owner and the Dianbai militia unit that operates from that port," Poling told Rappler in an interview.
Months after the incident, the Philippines defense department reported that Chinese fishing vessels do more than just fish in the West Philippine Sea, but are part of China’s strategy to control the resource-rich waters and deny Filipinos access to their exclusive economic zone.
The Recto Bank incident was a first in the decades-long maritime dispute between in Manila and Beijing. The incident likewise put a spotlight on the Duterte administration's policy towards the West Philippine Sea, China's aggressive tactics in the maritime area, and tested Duterte's warm ties with Beijing. – Rappler.com