THE PHILIPPINES would file a diplomatic protest if investigations show that a Hong Kong vessel had deliberately sunk a Filipino fishing boat in its territorial waters, its top diplomat said on Wednesday.

But the incident should not be politicized because it involved a commercial boat, Foreign Affairs Secretary told an online news briefing.

“Whether there’s negligence on their part is what we’re going to determine,” he said. “If there is a diplomatic note that’s required, it will be sent.”

Twelve Filipino fishermen and two passengers aboard the FV Liberty went missing after it collided with Hong Kong-registered vessel MV Vienna Wood in Occidental Mindoro province on Sunday July 28.

Some critics have compared the incident to the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese-owned ship while it was anchored at Reed Bank off Palawan province in June last year, when 22 Filipino fishermen were abandoned at sea.

“This is already being investigated by our Philippine Ports Authority, Maritime Industry Authority and our Department of Transportation,” Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Brigido D. Dulay said at the same briefing.

The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines has also asked parties not to politicize the incident. “Pending the investigation, we hope all parties refrain from politicizing the issue,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

It also said China was coordinating with the Philippine government to resolve last year’s case. “The concerned Chinese fishing association has already offered a compensation proposal to the Philippine side and has been waiting for formal feedback from the latter.”

The presidential palace said Manila has exclusive jurisdiction over the case.

“We will not allow foreigners to exercise criminal and civil jurisdiction over the matter,” Presidential Spokesman Harry L. Roque told the ABS-CBN News.

He earlier said the incident fell under the country’s maritime laws and local courts should determine criminal and civil liability.

He also said the issue was unlikely to cause tensions with China because it happened in local waters.

The Philippine Coast Guard earlier said it had received a call from the captain of the Hong Kong-registered vessel about the incident that happened 14.57 nautical miles west-southwest off Mamburao in the province of Occidental Mindoro in the early hours of Sunday.

The Philippine boat was bound for Navotas City and had stopped for supplies in Tawi-Tawi in the nation’s south. The Hong Kong bulk carrier with 20 crew members had come from Subic Bay in Zambales province and was on its way to Australia.

The Coast Guard said it immediately activated search and rescue operations for the 12 missing fishermen, including its captain, and two passengers.

It sent a light utility aircraft and helicopter to support the operations, it said. They have not found any survivors.

Mr. Duterte had called last year’s sinking by the Chinese boat “maritime incident,” putting his policy on the South China Sea in the spotlight.

Mr. Duterte has sought closer trade and investment ties with China since he became president in 2016, unlike his predecessor Benigno S.C. Aquino, who sued Beijing at an international tribunal for its island-building activities and won.

China claims sovereignty over more than 80% of the South China Sea based on its so-called nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map. It has been building artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands and setting up installations including several runways.

The Philippines this month protested China’s creation of two new districts — Nansha and Xisha — in the South China Sea because these are supposedly part of Philippine territory and sea zones.

Rival Southeast Asian claimant nations and the United States have criticized China’s recent assertive moves in the disputed waterway as the world battles the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic.

Aside from China and the Philippines, other claimants to the main waterway are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. — Charmaine A. Tadalan and Gillian M. Cortez