By Arjay L. Balinbin, Reporter

MALACAÑANG on Tuesday said President Rodrigo R. Duterte does not want the June 9 Recto Bank collision incident to turn into an “international crisis,” adding this will have a negative impact on the economic relations between Manila and Beijing, especially on Filipino workers in China.

For its part, the Chinese government reiterated that the incident was an accident. “It is irresponsible and counter-constructive to link this incident with China-Philippines friendship or even make political interpretations out of it,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said in a press briefing in Beijing last Monday. The transcript is posted on the foreign ministry’s official website.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said in his press briefing on Tuesday that the President is being “cautious” in making statements on the issue.

“The President is a very cautious person. And, as a lawyer, he is trained to listen to all sides, especially because there are adversarial claims….Kaya lalong nagiging maingat siya, kasi (that is why he is being more careful because) he does not want this blown into an international crisis,” Mr. Panelo said.

He added that the President is trying to protect the warm relations that his administration has established with China.

“So inaalagaan niya ito, at the same time inaalala na niya rin ‘yung kapakanan ng 320,000 na overseas workers natin sa China. At the same time iniisip niya rin ‘yung kapakanan ng mga Pilipinong nagpi-fish doon sa lugar na iyon sa Recto Bank. Iyon ang mga binabalanse ni Presidente (So he is taking care of that. At the same time, he is thinking of the welfare of the 320,000 overseas workers in China and the welfare of our citizens who are fishing at Recto Bank. These are the considerations he is balancing),” Mr. Panelo said.

For his part, Mr. Lu said in his press briefing that China is “ready to enhance communication with the Philippine side on the investigation, increase understanding, dispel mistrust and find out what actually happened.”

“China and the Philippines are neighbors across the sea. Our fishermen have long been friendly to each other, rendering mutual assistance to the best of their capabilities in times of need. China attaches great importance to maritime safety. We will continue to cooperate with littoral countries in this area,” the Chinese official also said.

Mr. Panelo said the President is “not inclined” to summon Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to the Palace to hear his explanation on the matter.

“The President, I think, is not inclined to do that because ang feeling niya talagang…ginagawa na nila (he feels that they are already doing something about it).May (There is already a) statement na si (from) Ambassador [Zhao that they are] seriously and cautiously studying the facts,” he said.

He said further, “With respect to the word ‘summon,’ you just don’t summon. That’s not diplomatic.”

On Mr. Duterte’s remarks last Monday describing the incident as a “little maritime accident,” Mr. Panelo said: “It’s factual, kasi iyon din ang sabi noong cook (because that was also what the Filipino boat’s cook said. But…despite that, sinasabi niya pa rin (he still said), ‘Eh hindi muna ako magsasalita (I will not give an) ng official statement on this matter and wait for the facts to set in.”

For his part, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Alexei B. Nograles said in a media interview at the Palace that Energy Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi and Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol, as alter-egos of the President, will deliver government assistance to the 22 fishermen in Mindoro on Wednesday.

In a related development, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary and Director-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Philippine National Secretariat Junever Mahilum-West also announced at the Palace that Mr. Duterte is scheduled to leave for Bangkok this week to attend the 34th ASEAN Summit, from June 22 to 23, where issues regarding the West Philippine Sea may also be brought up.

“Under the agenda item, regional and international developments, South China Sea will be on the agenda and the leaders are going to exchange views on this issue,” she said, although she noted that it was still “premature” for her to say whether there will be discussions on the matter.

“Incidents like what happened, emphasized the importance of having a Code of Conduct so that we could avoid, we could prevent these incidents from happening in the future,” she added.

Senators also weighed in on the matter, with Minority Leader Senator Franklin M. Drilon saying in a statement, Tuesday, “Let us not muddle the issue. Whether the ramming was intentional or accidental, what is in issue, and what is clear and admitted, is that the Chinese boat captain abandoned the Filipino fishermen in distress at sea.”

“This violates China’s obligation under the UNCLOS to rescue those in distress at sea. This is the issue that should be addressed and the basis of China’s liability under international law and the UNCLOS,” he added.

Senator Emmanuel Joel J. Villanueva, vice-chairman of the committee on foreign relations, said in his statement, “That crew, which we believe should not be in our waters in the first place, must be brought here in the Philippines to be held to account and make amends.”

Senator Panfilo M. Lacson, for his part, said the Philippines should invoke its Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. “No less than US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said as much very recently — that the US and the Philippines have an obligation under such treaty to respond accordingly if a vessel belonging to either party, military or civilian, is attacked in the West Philippine Sea, which according to him is within the area of the Pacific,” Mr. Lacson said.

“As I said in my tweet, I am not praying for World War III, but at least a strong presence of the US Pacific fleet in the WPS can make China feel the balance of power in that area,” Mr. Lacson added.

For his part, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr., speaking at the 29th meeting of states parties on June 17 in New York City, said, “It is the obligation of every member state of the UN and of the IMO 9 International Maritime Organization) to pay not just lip service to these conventions but to observe them in real life-and-death situations. The rescue of persons in distress is a universally recognized obligation of people and governments; and in civil law and, maybe even in common law, it is a felony to abandon people in distress, especially when we cause that distress; and more so when it is no bother at all to save them at no risk to oneself.” — with Charmaine A. Tadalan