BEIJING: The sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a suspected Chinese trawler in disputed waters was described by Beijing on Thursday (Jun 13) as an ordinary maritime accident, after Manila accused the alleged Chinese crew of cowardice for fleeing the scene.
The Philippine defence department said on Wednesday a suspected Chinese boat had collided with a Filipino craft anchored near Reed Bank in the South China Sea, causing it to sink and leaving 22 crewmen to their fate.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's office said the abandonment of the Filipino crew was "barbaric", while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana condemned the Chinese trawler's "cowardly action".
Neither Beijing nor Manila have officially confirmed the boat involved in the hit-and-run incident was Chinese-registered.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday called the incident "an ordinary maritime traffic accident", and said China was still investigating.
He added, however: "If the relevant reports are true, regardless of the country from which the perpetrator came from, their behaviour should be condemned."
Geng said it was irresponsible for the Philippines to "politicise the incident without verification".
Although Duterte has largely set aside the bitter dispute with Beijing over the resource-rich South China Sea, Manila does sometimes protest against Chinese action.
In an angry statement issued on Thursday, Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo blasted the suspected Chinese trawler crew, saying "such act of desertion is as inhuman as it is barbaric".
"Regardless of the nature of the collision, whether it was accidental or intentional, common decency and the dictates of humanity require the immediate saving of the crew of the downed Philippine vessel," he said.
Panelo also thanked the crew of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the vicinity which he said brought the Filipinos to safety.
Like the Philippines, Vietnam has partial claims over the South China Sea, where Beijing has staked "indisputable sovereignty" and built artificial islands with military facilities and airstrips.
Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the area.
Reed Bank is about 150 kilometres (93 miles) off the Philippine island of Palawan. It is within Manila's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and far from China's nearest major landmass.