Just before midnight on June 9, the crew of the Gem-Ver, a Philippine fishing boat anchored in the South China Sea off Palawan island, were woken by the vessel’s cook, Richard Blaza, who warned it was about to be hit by an approaching Chinese vessel.
According to accounts by the crew, Yuemaobinyu 42212, the Chinese boat, rammed the Philippine vessel from the stern, returning to flash its searchlight on the wreckage before leaving the boat to sink.
Two of the stranded fishermen rowed a lifeboat toward the nearest light — a Vietnamese fishing boat whose crew sailed to the scene and pulled from the water 20 more cold and exhausted Philippine fishermen, who were clinging for their lives to plastic barrels and pieces of wood. “They heard the noise, our call for help . . . They saw us floating in the waters,” Mr Blaza told local media.
Nearly two weeks later, the fallout from the incident is still being felt in the Philippines, where the popular, pro-Chinese President Rodrigo Duterte has come under scathing — and rare — attack for first remaining silent, then dismissing the sinking as “a maritime incident”.
“The ramming happened on June 9 — Philippines-China Friendship Day — which is mind-boggling,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst and fellow at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “In many ways it symbolises the true nature of our bilateral relations.”
The Gem-Ver incident, the most serious flare-up between the two countries since 2012, comes at a time when there is growing anxiety in south-east Asia over the security risks arising from US-China rivalry. Despite Mr Duterte’s strategic pivot toward Beijing as president, the Philippines has a 1951 mutual defence treaty with the US, which the Trump administration recently confirmed applied to the South China Sea and would be triggered in the event of a “threat” to Philippine sovereignty.
Public anger over the incident in the Philippines has exposed what analysts say is the strongman president’s weakest flank: his strategic tilt away from the US, in a country where much of the population — including some members of his own administration — are sceptical of Beijing. Demonstrators in Manila on Tuesday burnt 22 Chinese flags — one for each of the fishermen — and protested against what one participant called Mr Duterte’s “weak positions against Chinese aggression and bullying”.
Although full details of the clash are not available, the incident has highlighted the risk that fishing incidents in the South China Sea, which sits on Asia’s most sensitive geopolitical faultline, could escalate into more serious disputes. Vietnamese, Philippine and other fishing boats have in several cases been rammed or sunk by Chinese craft, including from the country’s maritime militia — although it is not clear whether the boat that sank the Gem-Ver belonged to it or was a rogue vessel.
“They actually left 22 Filipinos in the water to die,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, DC. “It almost doesn’t matter whether or not it was state directed; it’s an avatar of everything people in the Philippines see as what’s wrong with Beijing.”
Delfin Lorenzana, the hawkish defence secretary, first made the sinking public on June 12, Philippine Independence Day, condemning the Chinese boat for abandoning the men. The announcement set Philippine media alight, and a naval spokesman said the collision appeared to have been intentional.
The Chinese embassy in Manila said the captain of the Chinese boat tried to rescue the men, but was “besieged by other Filipino fishing boats” — a detail absent from the Philippine and Vietnamese eyewitness accounts. A later Chinese statement omitted the claim that the boat had been besieged, and described it as an “accidental collision”.
Teddy Locsin Jr, the foreign minister, said it was “contemptible” and “condemnable” that the crew of the Philippine boat had been left to the elements by the Chinese.
As the crew of the Vietnamese boat that rescued the Gem-Ver crew gave an account that matched the Filipinos, Mr Duterte faced growing criticism for remaining silent. Vice-president Leni Robredo, a member of Mr Duterte’s small liberal opposition, expressed her “deepest outrage” over the sinking and the refusal of China’s government to acknowledge the culpability of those responsible.
On Monday, the Philippine leader addressed the issue for the first time, telling navy officers at an official function: “You do not send grey [navy] shops there, that’s just a collision of ships,” in remarks widely criticised as too soft.
Leila de Lima, a former opposition senator and fierce critic of Mr Duterte jailed in 2016 under what human rights advocates describe as trumped-up charges, accused Mr Duterte of making a “treasonous defence of a foreign aggressor”.
The Reed Bank, where the boat was sunk, is an area rich in fish and undersea energy reserves that the Philippines has been unable to exploit freely because of China’s internationally unrecognised claim to most of the South China Sea.
In a further twist to the Gem-Ver story, the boat’s captain, Junel Insigne, appeared to change his story after meeting privately with Emmanuel Pinol, Mr Duterte’s agriculture secretary saying he was now unsure if the Chinese intentionally sank the boat. However, calls for accountability by opposition politicians and pundits continue. “It is not going to go away,” said Mr Heydarian. “It’s a political snowball now.”
Additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in Taipei