MANILA — The Philippines on Wednesday accused a Chinese vessel of ramming a Philippine boat in the disputed South China Sea, causing it to sink and putting the lives of the crew at risk.
Although the 22 fishermen onboard were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the area, Philippine officials said the collision on Sunday had left them “to the mercy of the elements.”
“We condemn in the strongest terms the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement. “This is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people.”
Mr. Lorenzana called for a formal investigation and for diplomatic action “to prevent a repeat of this incident.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila, the Philippine capital, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, which was a holiday in the Philippines commemorating its independence from Spain.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has courted China as a strategic partner since he was elected in 2016. He was most recently in China last month, his fourth visit in three years, but bilateral ties have been fraying, particularly over territorial disputes.
The Philippine vessel, FB Gimber1, was anchored near Recto Bank in the South China Sea, a strategically important area that is claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Manila calls the area the West Philippine Sea, and an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in 2016 that it was within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
China has refused to abide by the ruling, and Mr. Duterte has said there is no way to enforce it in the face of China’s military strength.
At a meeting of Asia-Pacific defense officials in Singapore this month, Mr. Lorenzana called on all South China Sea claimants to exercise utmost caution to prevent an escalation of hostilities. He pushed for freedom of navigation in the area, while the United States said it was investing heavily in new technology that would improve its defense capabilities along with those of its allies. Patrick Shanahan, the acting United States secretary of defense, also urged Beijing to follow a “rules-based order” in the region.
Hundreds of protesters marched in Manila on Wednesday over China’s actions in the South China Sea and called on Filipinos to defend their country’s sovereignty.
Pamalakaya, a group of fishermen who joined the protest, demanded that Chinese vessels immediately withdraw from the disputed area and that Mr. Duterte toughen his stance against the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.
Bobby Roldan, a spokesman for the group, said members could not fish in peace “courtesy of China’s intimidating presence in our waters.”
“And yet we don’t hear any condemnation from the Duterte administration,” he said.