'A breakthrough,' PH envoy says of Chinese ship owner's apology over Recto Bank incident

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 29 2019 01:37 PM | Updated as of Aug 29 2019 08:40 PM

A photo of the damaged Filipino fishing boat F/B Gem-Ver after it was hit by a Chinese vessel at the Recto bank is shown during a press conference on June 17, 2019. Aaron Favila, AP

MANILA (UPDATE) - The apology Manila received from a Chinese ship owner over the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat near the Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea is a "breakthrough" for settling the incident, Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana said Thursday.

The unnamed Chinese company, through an association, apologized for the June 9 incident after its crew left Filipino fishermen at sea. It, however, maintained that the incident was "accidental."

"The issuance of a public apology by the ship owner is a welcome development. It helps clear the air for the bilateral talks that will happen tonight [between President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping]," Sta. Romana told reporters in Beijing.

Duterte is in the Chinese capital for fresh talks with Xi, where the South China Sea dispute is expected to be tackled. 

"We're on the cusp of a closure. I mean, there's still the compensation issue. But generally speaking, we have made a breakthrough," he said.

Sta. Romana also revealed that China, through its fisheries official, had long issued a verbal apology over the incident but the Philippines insisted that it wanted a "public and formal" one.

"The Chinese government, through their foreign ministry, has expressed that they are very sorry about the incident through diplomatic channels already,” he said.

"What we want is a public, formal apology, written not verbal. And that's what took a bit of time," he said.

The envoy noted that the memorandum sent to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. was the result of "intense negotiations."

"This apology represents the ship owner but in a sense, I think through diplomatic discussion with the Chinese side, we have made it clear that this had a negative impact, an adverse impact on the bilateral relations particularly on Chinese image," he said.

BAYAN MUNA: APOLOGY 'AN INSULT'

Lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc, however, slammed the apology, calling it an "insult."

”Yung apology na yun is non-apology na apology. Ginawa lang 'yun para ma-smoothen ang pagbisita ng Pangulo Duterte. Pero kung babasahin ang apology na 'yun, it is not even an official apology from the Chinese government,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said in a press conference.

(That apology is a non-apology. It was only made to smoothen the visit of President Duterte. But if you read the apology clearly, it is not even an official apology from the Chinese government.)

"Hindi sapat 'yung may-ari lang ng barko. Kasi usapin ito ng bansa sa bansa. Kahit ang involved dito ay yung mamamayan, pero dapat ito ay official man lang ng China. Pakunwari lang ito na paga-apology, pero 'pag nakita natin, nainsulto pa tayo,” added ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro.

(The ship owner's apology is not enough. This is an issue between two countries. Even if this involved citizens, the apology should have come from a Chinese official. They are pretending to apologize, but if we review it carefully, we are being insulted.)

The Philippines and China conducted separate but parallel investigations on the incident and found that both sides "basically agreed on the key points" of what happened, Sta. Romana explained.

The apology came ahead of Duterte's fifth visit to China, where he is expected to assert Manila's rights over the West Philippine Sea, its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which Beijing is claiming in near entirety.