MANILA, Philippines – Friendlier ties between the Philippines and China should not be used to set aside and "cover up" Filipino fishermen's own accounts of the boat sinking by a Chinese ship in the West Philippine Sea.
This was the view of security analyst Rommel Banlaoi who described President Rodrigo Duterte's dismissal of the incident as a "maritime incident" is "insensitive" to fishermen who suffered the near-death ordeal.
"Yes, we want to value our relationship with China and we need to sustain, enhance, and make this relationship more productive and elevate it to the higher level but let us not allow this friendship to cover up the story of what really happened in the incident," Banlaoi said in a roundtable forum at Quezon City on Wednesday, June 19.
"We don't want to let this friendship deny justice to the 22 fishermen affected by the incident. We don't want to use this friendship to set aside this story. We don't want to make this friendship disregard the incident," he added.
What sinking incident? On June 9, Fishing Boat Gem-Ver was rammed then abandoned by a Chinese ship near Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea. Recto Bank – an oil-rich underwater reef formation – belongs to the Philippine and is coveted by China.
The 22 Filipino fishermen aboard the vessel were abandoned and left to float at sea until a Vietnamese fishing boat saved them.
Statements from officials and members of Duterte's cabinet have held back in condemning China for the incident with some even casting doubts on claims made by the Filipino fishermen. Officials described it as an "accident," echoing China's view that it was an "ordinary maritime accident."
But Banlaoi said regardless of the intention, what cannot be ignored was the Chinese did not help the fishermen and abandoned them at sea.
"The crux of the issue here is not whether it is intentional or an accident, but accountability of the Chinese nationals for neglecting their duty to save our 22 fishermen," he said. "That's the very nature of the problem now and the 22 fishermen are asking for justice."