The Philippine Navy has apologised to China after its warship accidentally struck a Chinese fishing boat in near the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea, Defence Department spokesman Zosimo Paredes said on Wednesday, but he added that the Chinese boat was "poaching" in Philippine waters.
Paredes said the Philippine navy has informed the Chinese Embassy of the incident and apologized for it. He added that the Philippine boat was on patrol in the Reed Bank, within Philippine-claimed waters, on Tuesday when it spotted a Chinese fishing vessel towing smaller, unoccupied boats.
Paredes said the naval patrol boat went to challenge the main Chinese vessel, but "encountered steering problems," becoming entangled with one of the smaller Chinese boats under tow. Paredes insisted there was no intention to ram the Chinese boats.
Navy spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Omar Tonsay said the main fishing boat severed the cables to the smaller empty boats, sailing away and leaving the boats behind. Paredes said that there were no injuries and damage was minimal. Chinese media outlets have so far made no mention of the incident.
Report: Manila apologises to China over South China Sea incident (Asia One, 19 Oct 2011)
Report: Philippines apologizes to China over sea accident (Associated Press, 19 Oct 2011)
This incident comes amid annual joint US-Philippines marine drills which include a hostile beach assault exercise near the Spratlys. The drills would last for two weeks until 28 October.
US Marine 1st Lt. Nick Eisenbeiser said the drills would focus on honing US and Philippine joint military capability to safeguard regional security and were not targeted at China or any country as a virtual target, adding that they were intended to "[assist] the Chinese in ensuring that their region is peaceful."
Philippine military spokeswoman 1st Lt. Cherryl Tindog said one of the drills will involve a mock raid by about US and Filipino marines from US warship to capture a hostile beachhead west of Palawan province, facing the South China Sea. A separate Philippine-occupied island was originally offered as a possible site for drills but was abandoned to avoid provoking China and other claimants. Philippine marine Brig. Gen. Eugenio Clemen said the exercises would be limited within Philippine territory so that "nobody could question that."
Report: US, Philippine marines begin drills near Spratlys (Assoicated Press, 17 Oct 2011)
An Asia expert said the exercises represent a clear strategic move by the US to counter growing Chinese assertiveness over the South China Sea.
Marvin Ott from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said Tuesday, "This exercise is a tangible and logical early expression of what will I think be an emerging posture of U.S. deterrence in the South China Sea, meaning deterrence vis-à-vis the Chinese military."
Even more so, the Philippines’ "support for an exercise like this is a statement that the Philippines are ready to play an important role in the strategic stance designed to cope with the rise of China."
Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was friendly to the Chinese, who were pouring investments into the Philippines. During that time, "US-Philippine cooperation on defence or strategic issues declined to a pretty low ebb," said Ott.
With growing Chinese assertiveness over the South China Sea during the past year, the Philippines have shown a significant shift in posture under current President Benigno Aquino. Ott remarked that the joint military drills are intended to signal that "the Philippines is no longer a pliant, inert presence in the strategic picture in Southeast Asia that can be bought off or manipulated by China."
Analysis: US-Philippine Military Drills Signal Strategic Shift in Manila (World Politics Review, 19 Oct 2011)