The ramming and sinking of M/B Gen-Ver marks China’s most aggressive behavior toward the Philippines not seen in the past. Could this be the start of China’s new form of engagement in the South China Sea despite Rodrigo Duterte’s conciliatory and appeasement policy towards China? (Photo by Toto Lozano/Presidential Photo/PNA)

Almost a month after the Philippine Coast Guard completed and submitted its report on the ramming and sinking of a Mindoro-based fishing boat by a steel-hulled vessel believed to be from Southern China, the Philippine government has yet to take action and hold the other party accountable and demand compensation.

Although the June 20 official report did not say the ramming was intentional, the coast guard concluded that the Chinese vessel could have prevented it because the wooden fishing boat was stationary and the larger vessel could have maneuvered to avoid hitting the other boat, even on a dark night in the vast open sea.

What’s unforgivable was the master of the larger ship did not assist 22 fishermen after M/B Gem-Ver sank. He hastily abandoned them in the water, a serious violation of international maritime laws. The fishermen were lucky to have been rescued by a nearby Vietnamese fishing vessel, about five miles away from scene of the crime.

The Chinese embassy in Manila issued a statement about the incident, but took it back because it was difficult to justify the action of the Chinese vessel after hitting the fishing boat. The embassy statement claimed the Chinese vessel left for fear of action by other Filipino fishing vessels in the area. It was a lame and poor excuse for a very shameful behavior.

The incident is a very disturbing development because this could be the first time a Chinese ship deliberately rammed a local fishing boat in an area within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, which Beijing is now claiming to be part of its territory based on its own history under the “nine-dash-line” claim.

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a landmark decision rejecting the nine-dash-line, and said the Philippines has sovereign rights on all economic resources in the questioned areas in the South China Sea, particularly on Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef and the Reed Bank area.

China ignored the ruling and continued to exercise control over Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef as well as patrol the Reed Bank, driving away foreign fishing vessels in these areas to assert its territorial claim.

The ramming and sinking of M/B Gem-Ver could signal a shift in China’s rules of engagement with the Philippines in the South China Sea, an alarming development that the government should seriously assess. It should lead to a rethink of the national security and maritime policy.

In the past, China was more lenient with the Philippines in dealing with local fishermen. Chinese coast guard ships on patrol in Scarborough Shoal and in the Spratlys would usually use bull horns to drive away Filipino fishing boats getting close to the Beijing-controlled area.

There were times when local fishing boats were trained by water cannons if they came within 5-10 miles from Scarborough Shoal. This was after June 2012, when China gained full control of the rocky outcrop less than 150 miles west of the Zambales coastline.

The rules of engagement were in sharp contrast with how China dealt with Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracels and Spratlys. Chinese coast guard would normally ram and sink boats, confiscate the catch, and arrest and even physically harm Vietnamese fishermen caught fishing near waters claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway where about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have conflicting claims, too. It is also believed the waters have rich deposits of energy and minerals as well as a lucrative fishing grounds, where more 12 than percent of world’s fish catch in 2016 were sourced.

China dominates 55 percent of the world’s commercial fishing fleet operating in South China Sea. Since 2011, the Philippine Navy has observed a five-fold increase in the number of Chinese vessels in the South China Sea. Many of the vessels were fishing boats and unarmed militia ships, crowding the traditional fishing grounds of most Southeast Asian countries, particularly Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Early this year, the navy reported an unusual number of more than 200 Chinese vessels around Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys, including Pag-asa (Thitu) island where there is a small community of Filipino fishermen.

A senior navy commander said the Chinese militia ships were mostly former coast guard and navy warships, which are even bigger than the largest Philippine Navy warships (some are World War II vintage) on patrol in the South China Sea. These Chinese militia vessels have reinforced steel hulls designed for ramming smaller fishing vessels.

China’s interest in the South China Sea began shortly after the Second World War after it claimed the waterway through its nine-dash-line map. At that time, it was in a position to assert its claim because it had blue water navy capability. It started to make its presence felt in the late 1980s after it won a limited navy skirmish with Vietnam over Fiery Cross Reef and began occupying unmanned reefs, shoals and atolls in the South China Sea.

It seized control of Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s after the United States withdrew from its two large overseas military bases in the Philippines in 1992. It slowly converted the half-submerged reef into a huge artificial island with a large naval and air bases.

China’s aggressive actions against the Philippines began in 2011 when its maritime patrol vessels harassed a private survey ship hired to conduct a seismic study in the Reed Bank by an Anglo-Filipino oil exploration company. The following year, China seized Scarborough Shoal after a three-month standoff.

The ramming and sinking of M/B Gem-Ver marks China’s most aggressive behavior toward the Philippines not seen in the past. Could this be the start of China’s new form of engagement in the South China Sea despite Rodrigo Duterte’s conciliatory and appeasement policy towards China?

Let us watch closely the unfolding scenario. This may not be the first and last ramming incident. Let’s hope it was really unintentional and a case of mistaken identity since there were more Vietnamese fishing boats in that area at that time.