Duterte says Philippines, China, ‘neutral country’ should jointly probe Recto Bank allision

By Eimor Santos, CNN Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte agrees with China that a joint investigation should be conducted on the boat allision at Recto Bank, adding that a “neutral country” should be part of the probe.

“The basic dictates of justice demand a full account of the events that ultimately led to the abandonment of our twenty two ( 22 ) distressed fishermen in the middle of the sea and accountability of those at fault,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement on Saturday.

“With this in mind, the Palace wishes to inform our people that President Rodrigo Roa Duterte welcomes and accepts the offer of the Chinese Government to conduct a joint investigation to determine what really transpired in Recto Bank and find a satisfactory closure to this episode,” he added.

He said the President wants the probe to be conducted by “highly qualified and competent individuals,” composed of one representative each from the Philippines and China, and a third member from a “neutral country.”

In a tweet on Saturday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin, Jr. said it will be “a maritime inquiry with an independent third party, e.g., Brunei.” He earlier rejected the idea of a joint investigation.

A joint probe on the Recto Bank incident was first suggested by some Philippine officials, including Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, who is also Chief Presidential Legal Counsel. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang in a media briefing on Thursday proposed the conduct of a joint investigation, saying this is key to finding a “proper solution” to the incident.

Pending the investigation, the top officials of both countries are calling it an accident.

A Chinese vessel hit and sank a Filipino fishing boat near Recto Bank, also known as Reed Bank, an underwater feature being claimed by both Manila and Beijing, last June 9. The Chinese crew abandoned all 22 Filipino fishermen, who were later rescued by a Vietnamese vessel after floating in the high seas for hours.

In an earlier statement, China’s Embassy in Manila said a Chinese fishing boat was “besieged” by seven to eight Filipino boats as it was berthed near Recto Bank last June 9. The Chinese vessel then “accidentally” hit the Filipino boat Gem-Ver as it was trying to escape, China said. It added that the Chinese crew was forced to abandon the Filipino fishermen, “afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats.” It claimed the Chinese vessel only left when other local boats came to rescue the Filipino fishermen.

Filipino fishermen dismissed these as lies. They told CNN Philippines they were jolted from sleep when the Chinese vessel hit their boat at midnight, and that the foreign vessel quickly sailed away upon seeing them out in the water. They also said there were no other Filipino boats in the area.

The Palace said a joint and impartial investigation is the only way to put the issue to rest.

“Having separate investigations by the two countries may raise speculation and accusation of bias. Such circumstance will put any finding by any side open to question and place the entire issue in a confused state,” Panelo said. “It will also be in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which places paramount emphasis on the use of peaceful means to resolve international disputes.”

The Palace said the government is “demanding justice for our countrymen, and we are using all legal means toward that end.”

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario earlier cautioned against a joint investigation, saying the already-aggrieved fishermen would further be on the losing end if it pushes through.

“We should really feel sorry for our poor fishermen as the ultimate product of a joint probe with Beijing is expected to be no more than a bowl of fruit salad,” del Rosario said.

Guevarra earlier said “referral to a neutral third party may be considered” if there are factual differences from the accounts of the two countries. The Philippine Embassy in London earlier decried the “callous” abandonment of Filipino fishermen before the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a London-based specialized agency of the UN that focuses on the safety, security, and environmental impact of international shipping. Some officials have said the IMO could conduct the probe. Both the Philippines and China are member states of the IMO.

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