Duterte cancels Cabinet meeting about China 'hit-and-run': Palace

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 16 2019 12:15 PM | Updated as of Jun 16 2019 08:37 PM

MANILA (UPDATED) -- President Rodrigo Duterte has canceled a special Cabinet meeting on the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese vessel that has raised tensions in the West Philippine Sea, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea said Sunday.

The meeting was supposed to be held Monday after the Philippine Navy anniversary celebration, which Duterte would attend in Sangley Point, Cavite, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said.

Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi also confirmed the initial plan during a visit in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, the hometown of the 22 fishermen whose boat was sunk near Recto (Reed) Bank last June 9.

"No meeting," Medialdea said in a text message. He later told reporters that the meeting was "canceled."

Lorenzana, however, said he has not been informed the meeting was canceled and that it would proceed "unless told otherwise."

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo, meanwhile, said he had "no info on that yet."

While Duterte has largely set aside the once tense stand-off with China over the resource-rich waterway, many in the Philippines bristle at Beijing's actions in the sea.

The Chinese embassy in Manila said the crew of trawler Yuemaobinyu 42212 "bumped into" the Philippine boat and then left due to safety fears.

"The Chinese captain tried to rescue the Filipino fisherman, but was afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats," the statement said.

It went on to say the incident was not a "hit-and-run", as some Philippine authorities had claimed, because the trawler "confirmed the fishermen from the Filipino boat were rescued".

However, the 22 fishermen told a very different story, saying they had spent hours in the water awaiting help.

They were eventually picked up by a Vietnamese boat and brought home Friday aboard a Philippine navy vessel.

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The Philippine coast guard has started an investigation of the incident which Duterte's spokesman branded as "outrageous and barbaric".

Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan branded China's version of events "as fake as its territorial claims," and called for Philippine leaders to stand up to Beijing.

"Now is the time to show real grit and toughness," Pangilinan said. "There is never a time to be meek and submissive before a foreign power that endangers our own people."

Duterte has yet to make any public comment on the incident, although Panelo earlier said Duterte was "outraged" by the sinking of the Philippine fishing boat.

Manila's Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said this week that he had lodged a diplomatic protest with China over the sinking.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday called the incident "an ordinary maritime traffic accident".

Geng said it was irresponsible for the Philippines to "politicize the incident without verification".

Competing claims over the South China Sea are a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it, and rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath its waters.

Reed Bank, also called Recto Bank in the Philippines, is within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and far from China's nearest major landmass.

Manila won a key 2016 ruling against China's claims in the waterway, but Duterte opted to set it aside in exchange for Chinese investments.

Opposition politicians, as well as segments of the public and media, charge that Duterte bartered away Philippine sovereignty with little to show in return.

- Report from Pia Gutierrez and Ralph Bosano, ABS-CBN News