MANILA (UPDATE) - Opposition lawmakers on Saturday blasted China over its claims that it was its ship that was "besieged" by Filipino vessels while attempting to rescue Filipinos thrown overboard from a fishing boat it hit in the West Philippine Sea last Sunday.
In separate statements, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, Sen. Francis Pangilinan and Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano were incredulous at the Chinese government's statement claiming that Chinese crewmen tried to rescue Filipino fishermen from an anchored boat it hit near the Recto (Reed) bank only to be scared away by surrounding Filipino vessels.
The boat sank and 22 Filipino fishermen were left at sea.
"The Chinese government's response to the West Philippine Sea hit-and-run incident, through its embassy here in Manila, is preposterous," Hontiveros said.
"It is a flimsy attempt at a cover-up to shield the involved Chinese crew from any accountability and shift the blame and responsibility to our distressed fisherfolk," she added.
Alejano, meanwhile, said this could not have been the case as Filipino fishermen would not have dared to do so given China's known military presence in the area.
The West Philippine Sea is the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety. Beijing has been fortifying reclaimed islands in the waters.
"The Chinese want it to appear that they were the ones harassed. This is ridiculous. Do you think our fishermen will have the gall to bully Chinese fishermen in the Spratlys with the PLA (People's Liberation Army) Navy, Coast Guard and its maritime militia around?" said Alejano, a former navy officer.
"Will our fishermen have the boldness to make overt offensive actions against Chinese fishermen knowing that in the horizon lies three large reclaimed islands armed with radars and missiles defense system (surface to surface & surface to air) which has combat radius covering almost the South China Sea including whole of Palawan island?" he said.
He said the Chinese vessel could not have missed the Filipino boat as "the area was wide, weather was clear, and the vessels were well-lighted with superlights used to attract fish."
Pangilinan called the Chinese version of the incident "as fake as its territorial claims."
"Between a press release and the narrative of our Filipino fishermen, there is no question who is the "besieged" victim telling the truth. We hope our government is of the same mind, and will side with truth and our people," he said.
He said it was "enraging, even as it is ironic" for China to evade liability over the incident.
In its version of the events surrounding the sinking of Filipino fishing boat F/B GEM-VIR1, the Chinese government described the incident as an accident and claimed that the Chinese vessel was "suddenly besieged by 7 or 8 Filipino fishing boats" while attempting to rescue the 22 Philippine fishermen at sea.
The Filipino fishermen, who returned home Friday, meanwhile, said the Chinese vessel rammed their boat and that they were abandoned. They found help in a nearby Vietnamese vessel.
Alejano said the act of abandoning people in distress at sea "is a clear violation of international law."
Hontiveros, meanwhile, called on President Rodrigo Duterte to "immediately downgrade our ties with China" because of the Chinese ship's act of abandoning the Filipinos.
"The downgrading of ties will upgrade our position in finding justice for our aggrieved fisherfolk and in defending our sovereignty," Hontiveros said.
She said if there were indeed Filipino vessels around, as China claimed, "why were our fishermen rescued by the Vietnamese?"
"Why would our fishermen wait for several hours, exposed to the mercy of the elements, before they were saved from danger?" she said.
The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest over the incident, but Duterte, who has pursued enhanced ties with China, has yet to comment on the matter.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo earlier said Manila could cut ties with Beijing should it be proven that the ramming was intentional.
For Pangilinan, it is time to "show real grit and toughness."
"We need genuine leadership. Now is the time to stand up and speak out for our people. Now is the time to show real grit and toughness. There is never a time to be meek and submissive before a foreign power that endangers our own people," he said.