Chinese ship that sank Philippine fishing boat in South China Sea may have been on enforcement mission, US analysts say

Keegan Elmer

A Chinese vessel that collided with a Philippine ship in the South China Sea in June may have been sent to the disputed waters on enforcement duty, according to US analysts.

In a report released on Wednesday, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) in Washington challenged Chinese claims that the nighttime collision on June 9 – which left 22 crew members of the Philippine vessel on a sinking ship – was an accident.

The Chinese boat, the steel-hulled Yuemaobinyu 42212, struck the wooden Philippine fishing boat Gem-Ver as it sat at anchor near Reed Bank, about 565km (350 miles) southwest of Manila. The Chinese boat left the scene, leaving the Gem-Ver’s crew to send out a distress call. They were rescued by a passing Vietnamese boat.

The incident sparked demonstrations in Manila, where protesters burned Chinese flags, and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr lodged a protest with Beijing.

China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the Philippine government both began investigations shortly after the sinking.

On August 28, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs released part of a letter written by China’s agriculture ministry which contained an apology from the captain of the Yuemaobinyu, and assurances from Beijing that the captain would cooperate in compensating the Philippines for the loss of the Gem-Ver.

Philippine fishing boat’s sinking in South China Sea was ‘just a collision’, Duterte says

The AMTI report said it had found evidence to suggest that the Yuemaobinyu could have been part of Beijing’s efforts to press its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“These facts do not prove that the 42212 is part of the maritime militia. They do, however, strongly suggest that it does not operate solely as a commercial fishing ship, which raises the question of whether the collision with the Gem-Ver was intentional,” the report said.

The term “maritime militia” usually refers to fishing vessels in paramilitary service as required by Chinese law. The AMTI report alleged that the name of the Chinese vessel may have been changed sometime between May 2018 and April this year, that it had carried out research work for the Chinese government as the Yuedianyu 42212, was operated by the same captain, Liang Jin, and was physically similar to the Yuemaobinyu.

The AMTI also noted that the Chinese ship operated from Bohe port in Maoming, Guangdong province, where fishing vessels have been enlisted for maritime militia exercises, according to local media.

The sinking of the Gem-Ver in June spurred demonstrations in the Philippines. Photo: EPA

The report cited a 2016 article from the Maoming Online News which said 160 civilians were pressed into training at Bohe port by the city’s military division and its marine and fisheries bureau.

China has the world’s largest navy by ship count, with 300 warships in 2018, surpassing the 290 ships of the US Navy, according to data from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the parent organisation of the AMTI.

Admiral John Richardson, former chief of US naval operations, earlier warned that Chinese militia ships would be regarded as naval vessels by the US Navy, the Financial Times reported in January.

Philippines lodges diplomatic protest with Beijing over South China Sea ‘hit and run’ that sunk fishing vessel

A 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that Reed Bank was within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, defined as 200 nautical miles from the coast.

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