(Bloomberg) -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is standing by China over a collision involving the two nations' boats in the South China Sea, with his spokesman casting doubts on local fishermen's accounts of the incident.
In his first public statement about what he described as a "maritime incident," Duterte said China's side should be heard on the collision that resulted in a Philippine vessel carrying 22 fishermen sinking in disputed waters on June 9. The crew were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat and a Philippine Navy ship.
"It is best investigated. I don't issue a statement now because there's no investigation and no result," Duterte said in speech at a Philippine Navy event on Monday night. "The only thing we can do is wait and give the other party the right to be heard."
The Philippines will not escalate tensions with China by sending military ships to the South China Sea following the collision, he added, reiterating his nation isn't ready to go to war with Beijing.
At a briefing Tuesday, Duterte's spokesman Salvador Panelo said there are "circumstances that give doubt to the version" of the Filipino fishermen, including how most of them were asleep when the collision happened.
"The President doesn't want this to be blown into an international crisis," Panelo said. "We are being careful because there will be repercussions if we make the wrong move."
Duterte stuck to his pro-China stance despite calls from the opposition, led by Vice President Leni Robredo, to change his "passive" China policy by actively asserting the nation's rights in the disputed waters. Robredo, in a Facebook post Sunday, also called on Duterte's government to demand the Chinese fishermen's trial in the Philippines.
Duterte now has to convince the public that friendly ties with China is still the way to go, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
"Between the Philippine government and the Chinese government the friendship policy has been set, but this incident has happened and casts doubt on the sincerity and wisdom of it to the Filipino people," Batongbacal said.
The Philippines' long-term position in the South China Sea dispute may be weakened if Duterte maintains his pro-Beijing stance after the incident, said Professor Jeffrey Ordaniel, a fellow at Hawaii-based foreign policy research institute Pacific Forum. "The Duterte administration's China policy is unfortunately helping the Chinese pursue their maritime ambitions."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang described the incident as an "accidental collision" at briefing on Monday, adding that politicizing the collision "is not appropriate." Beijing's embassy in Manila earlier said the Chinese vessel's captain tried to rescue the Philippine fishermen after bumping into their boat, but was afraid of being "besieged" by other Filipino fishing boats.
The incident took place near Reed Bank, an area claimed by both Manila and Beijing where there's a pending oil exploration plan by Philippines company PXP Energy Corp.
--With assistance from Dandan Li and Philip J. Heijmans.
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