MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has broken his silence over the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese vessel, saying the June 9 collision in the South China Sea was just a "a little maritime accident."
Duterte had been under fire for not speaking up about the incident off Reed Bank in what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea. The Chinese sailors abandoned the 22 Filipinos on the sunken vessel, who said they were rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.
"It was just a collision [of two ships]," Duterte said at an event on Monday to mark the 121st anniversary of the founding of the Philippine Navy. "Do not make it worse. Do not allow a little maritime accident or intentional... to [cause] war there."
China has launched an investigation into the incident. "I'd like to stress that this is only an accidental collision between fishing boats at sea," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said at news conference on Monday.
On becoming president in 2016, Duterte abandoned Manila's hard-line stance toward Beijing on the South China Sea. China's claims to most of the sea were invalidated by an arbitration that year, but the Philippine president has said that a friendlier approach could lessen tensions in the disputed waterway -- also partly claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are in the process of crafting a maritime code for the South China Sea. Speaking at a Nikkei event in Tokyo last month, Duterte said the code could be finished within two years.
The issue is also likely to be a key issue at an ASEAN leaders summit in Bangkok this weekend.
Renato de Castro, a professor and security expert at the De La Salle University in Manila, expects Duterte to keep things friendly with Beijing.
"The Philippine government, despite what happened, is still playing by the rules defined by China," De Castro said. "The Duterte administration is trying to make sure that the appeasement policy with China is not unraveled by this incident."
Before Duterte spoke on Monday, his ministers played a juggling act between containing mounting domestic outrage and trying to protect ties with China.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said he "fired off" a diplomatic protest to China after reports about the incident came out, and presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo warned that Duterte could sever ties with China if the sinking was found to be intentional. Government officials have since toned down their remarks, saying they will wait for the results of the investigation.
Duterte's critics have used the incident to pounce on the president's China policy.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros slammed Duterte for being tough on other issues -- such as threatening to go to war with Canada over trash it sent to the Philippines -- but soft on China.
"Thank you for confirming who you truly are, Mr. President: violent and cruel toward the poor, foul-mouthed and obscene to women and democracy advocates, but feckless and spineless before China. Shame," Hontiveros said on Monday.
Business lobby groups have also stepped in to prevent the issue from potentially damaging economic relations with China, which have flourished under Duterte.
Retired Philippine diplomat and maritime affairs expert Alberto Encomienda said Duterte did the right thing by not blowing up the issue and bowing to pressure to slam Beijing.
"That means he is not a political animal," he told reporters on Tuesday. "He is a true leader of the country."