'Just a collision': Duterte downplays sinking

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte raise a toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila in November. (Mark R Cristino / AFP Photo)

The sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in the disputed South China Sea was "just a collision", the Philippine's President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday as he moved to soothe anger over the crash.

The typically brash Duterte urged calm in his first public comments about the June 9 incident, which has fed into outrage over China's expansive claims to the resource-rich waterway.

Critics have voiced anger over the Chinese trawler's failure to rescue the 22 Filipino fishermen after what some Philippine officials have called a "hit-and-run" incident.

"Do not believe those stupid politicians. They want to send the Navy," Duterte said. 

"That is just a collision of boats. Do not make it worse," Duterte added as he addressed the Philippine Navy, reiterating the country was not ready to go to war against China. 

Duterte has largely set aside the Philippines' row with Beijing over the key waterway to court trade and investments, but he has occasionally criticised China's actions there. 

Opposition politicians as well as segments of the public and media charge that Duterte has bartered away Philippine sovereignty with little to show in return.

Following his speech, Senator Risa Hontiveros branded Duterte "feckless & spineless before China" in a tweet.

Manila has filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing as Duterte aides and critics alike blasted how the Chinese boat left the fishermen in the open sea. 

However China has denied the claims, saying the trawler merely "bumped" into the Philippine boat and tried to rescue the fishermen but was "afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats". 

In his comments on Monday Duterte said he would await the results of an investigation. 

"The only thing that we can do is wait and give the other party the right to be heard. That is important," he said. 

The president's latest comments came after his defence minister last week condemned the "cowardly action" of the Chinese boat while his spokesman blasted the abandonment of the Filipino crew as "barbaric". 

The Filipino fishermen have stood by their story, saying the Chinese boat deliberately hit them and they then had to spend hours in the water awaiting help. 

The crew were eventually picked up by a Vietnamese boat and brought home Friday aboard a Philippine Navy vessel.

The incident occurred in Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and far from China's nearest major landmass.

Vietnam and the Philippines have partial claims over the South China Sea, where Beijing has staked "indisputable sovereignty" and built artificial islands with military facilities and airstrips.

Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the area. - AFP