The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest last week after Filipino fishermen claimed that a Chinese vessel had rammed their anchored boat and then abandoned them as the boat sank in the Reed Bank in the South China Sea. The action sparked outrage from Philippine authorities and media.
In a statement late Friday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila acknowledged that the trawler Yuemaobinyu 42212 had accidentally “bumped into” the Philippine boat and then left due to safety fears, Presstv Reported.
"The Chinese captain tried to rescue the Filipino fisherman, but was afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats," the statement said.
The Chinese Embassy went on to say that the incident was not a "hit-and-run" as some Philippine authorities had claimed, because the vessel "confirmed the fishermen from the Filipino boat were rescued.”
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said on his personal Twitter account Thursday he had “fired off a diplomatic protest yesterday” on the incident, which he claimed was intentional.
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, denounced the act as “uncivilized, outrageous and barbaric” in what could be the most serious flare-up between Manila and Beijing in three years.
Panelo also called on China to investigate and sanction the trawler’s crew members.
“The captain and the crew of the Chinese vessel should not have left the injured party without any assistance. Such act of desertion is inhuman,” Panelo claimed in a statement, adding the Chinese crew violated international protocols that require them to assist a vessel in distress.
Duterte may decide to minimize ties or even opt for a more severe response if the issue escalates, according to the spokesman.
Speaking at a regular briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang referred to it as an ordinary maritime traffic accident that could be dealt with by proper channels and blamed the media for hyping up the issue.
China is involved in maritime disputes in the South China Sea, where several countries, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, have overlapping claims.
It has also constructed several artificial islands over the past few years in the South China Sea, in a move that Washington has denounced as a land reclamation project.
The US, which sides with China's rivals in their territorial claims, also sends its warships close to the islands in what it calls “freedom of navigation” patrols.
Back in March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington will defend the Philippines against "armed attack" in the disputed waters.
The US is allied to the Philippines by treaty but Duterte, who took power in 2016, has been more inclined toward China. Under his presidency, the territorial dispute with Beijing has been less emphasized.
Duterte, who has sought Chinese investment in his country, famously unleashed several diatribes against former US president Barack Obama and partially downgraded military ties with America.