The Philippines has expressed solidarity with Vietnam after Hanoi protested against what it said was the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese coastguard vessel in the disputed South China Sea.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila expressed deep concern over the reported April 3 sinking of the boat off the Paracel Islands. There were eight fishermen on board at the time.
The incident happened at a time when a common approach was crucial in confronting the coronavirus pandemic, it said.
“COVID-19 is a very real threat that demands unity and mutual trust. In the face of it, neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fuse that’s lit by such incidents,” the unusually strong-worded statement from Manila said.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has built several islands equipped with military installations in the area, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Vietnam has been a consistent and vocal opponent of Beijing’s increasingly muscular territorial ambitions.
The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs recalled that 22 Filipino fishermen were left floating in the high seas, after a Chinese vessel sank their boat at Reed Bank on June 9 last year. They were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel.
“Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen,” the department said.
‘Chinese maritime militia’
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, played down the incident within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, even as it sparked anger in the streets.
The owner of the Chinese vessel later apologised for the incident and promised to compensate the Filipino fishermen for the damage to their fishing boat.
There has been speculation that the Chinese vessel involved in the boat-ramming was part of a “maritime militia” deployed by Beijing to intimidate vessels from other countries in the area.
The United States has also expressed serious concern over the reported sinking of the Vietnamese vessel and called on China to remain focused on supporting efforts to combat the pandemic and “stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”