It took Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte five days to publicly comment on the collision between a Filipino fishing boat and a Chinese vessel in the West Philippine Sea. When he finally did, he played it down as a “little maritime accident.”
F/B Gem-Ver 1 was anchored on Reed Bank around midnight of June 9, its 22 crew members taking a rest, when it was suddenly rammed by a Chinese vessel. The vessel turned its lights off before turning around to flee when it saw the boat sinking, according to the boat’s captain Junel Insigne. The crew was left at sea with the partially sunk boat when it was fortunately rescued by a Vietnamese vessel that happened to be in the area three hours later.
Criticized for keeping mum days after the Department of National Defense announced the incident publicly, the President finally broke his silence during a speech on June 17, during the Philippine Navy’s 121st anniversary:
"[Let’s] stay out of trouble. Just build on our own and not intervene. Do not allow a little maritime accident, [intentional or not], go to war," he said.
He also said there was still no concrete details on what happened.
“[A] maritime incident is a maritime incident. It is best investigated. I do not now issue a statement because there is no investigation and there is no result,” Duterte said. “The only thing we can do is to wait and give the other party the right to be heard. That’s important. China, what’s the truth?”
This, despite evidence that China had lied about the incident.
While official statements from China maintain that this was merely an accident between two fishing boats, there is plenty of speculation around the nature of the collision. A representative from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, for example, said the incident report reveals intentionality on the part of the Chinese vessel, according to a report by Rappler.
In a statement that has now been retracted, China earlier claimed that its ship was “besieged by 7 or 8 fishing boats” which prevented it from rescuing the F/B Gem-Ver 1. Satellite imagery reveals that wasn’t the case. On the night of the incident, fishing vessels were spread across Reed Bank, according to images shared by Jay Batongbacal, the director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, via Facebook.
Duterte even chastised politicians calling for more decisive action.
“Don’t believe those dumb politicians who want to send the Navy. You do not send gray ships there. This is merely a bumping of boats, do not make it worse because that’s a fertile ground for [worse courses of action]. And we are not yet as ready,” he said.
Known for his strong rhetoric that can often border on the offensive, this softer stand in the face of China has drawn strong reactions from across the board. Duterte has most recently said he was prepared to “declare war” with Canada over an ongoing garbage disposal issue, but appeared to give China a pass for putting Filipino fishermen’s lives at risk.
Senator Risa Hontiveros slammed the president, saying: “Thank you for confirming who you truly are, Mr. President. Violent and cruel towards the poor, foul-mouth and obscene towards women and democracy advocates, but feckless and spineless in front of China.”
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.