MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine government said Monday a Vietnamese fishing vessel initiated “very dangerous manoeuvrs” and slammed into a Filipino navy boat during a chase, prompting its sailors to fire warning shots then later found two Vietnamese dead on the vessel.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano informed his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh, of the deadly encounter that occurred early Saturday off the northwestern Philippines and assured him of a fair investigation.
Cayetano talked to Minh, who also serves as Vietnam’ deputy prime minister, during a meeting at the United Nations in New York.
“We would like to offer our sympathies over the unfortunate loss of life and give you our assurance that we will conduct a fair and thorough investigation into this matter,” a Department of Foreign Affairs statement issued in Manila quoted Cayetano as telling Minh.
Cayetano assured Minh that the five other Vietnamese fishermen who were taken into custody by Philippine authorities will be treated well and could be accessed anytime by Vietnamese officials, who are being updated on developments.
A Philippine security official told The Associated Press on Sunday that the incident unfolded closer to the Philippine coast and was not related to the main territorial disputes farther out in the South China Sea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila was the one authorized to speak on the issue.
Still, the deadly incident underscores the danger that lurks due to overlapping territorial claims in a region where competition is heavy for fish, oil, gas and other maritime resources. In 2013, Philippine coast guard personnel opened fire and killed a Taiwanese fisherman on board a boat that sailed in waters between the northern Philippines and Taiwan, sparking protests in Taiwan. Taiwan imposed sanctions before the row was diplomatically resolved.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said a Philippine navy patrol vessel encountered six Vietnamese boats fishing within the country’s exclusive economic zone about 34 nautical miles (63 kilometres) off Cape Bolina in the Philippine province of Pangasinan.
Such zones extend 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) where a coastal state has internationally recognized exclusive rights to fish and exploit other sea resources although foreign ships could pass through.
The Filipino sailors chased the Vietnamese fishing vessels, one of which “initiated very dangerous manoeuvrs that resulted in it slamming into the left front and left centre of the Philippine patrol vessel,” the department said.
That “prompted personnel on board the navy vessel to fire warning shots and when the navy personnel boarded the fishing vessel, they found two dead Vietnamese fishermen,” the department said, adding five other Vietnamese fishermen surrendered and were taken into custody.
The security official told AP the Vietnamese vessels were using powerful lights to attract fish off Bolinao town. The use of lights for that purpose is prohibited under Philippine law.
The Filipino navy personnel “followed the rules of engagement, including identification protocol and use of radio and public address system,” the official said, adding that the Vietnamese fishing boat was towed to Pangasinan afterward.
Vietnamese Embassy officials were not immediately available for comment.
Vietnam and the Philippines have both voiced opposition to China’s assertions of its territorial claims in the South China Sea, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has toned down his country’s criticism in an effort to thaw once-frosty relations and revive trade with Beijing.