MANILA (UPDATE) -- The United States envoy to the Philippines on Tuesday called for "full accountability" into the sinking of a Filipino boat rammed by a Chinese vessel, saying the incident highlights the importance of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
"I know that Filipino fishers have called on Chinese authorities to fully investigate the incident. And I think that is important, we need to find out exactly what happened, and if in fact there was wrongdoing by the Chinese fishing vessel," US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim told reporters in Davao.
"So I think there should be an investigation and there should be full accountability and we need to take measures to make sure we prevent accidents or incidents like that from happening again," he added.
The Filipino vessel was anchored near Reed Bank -- claimed by both Manila and Beijing -- when it was rammed by a Chinese vessel, causing it to sink and leaving 22 crewmen "to the mercy of the elements," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had said.
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".
"It appears that it was an accident, but obviously a very serious situation," said Kim.
The incident, he said, "is a reminder of that importance of coming out with a meaningful code of conduct."
"The US has continued to support efforts by the region to come up with a meaningful code of conduct, so I hope that effort will continue. Also, an important reminder that there needs to be responsible maritime behavior and activities that are consistent with international law," said the ambassador.
President Rodrigo Duterte, in his first public comment about the incident, said Monday that the sinking was just "a maritime incident."
"'Wag kayong maniwala diyan sa mga politiko, bobo, gusto papuntahin 'yung Navy... Banggaan lang ng barko 'yan. Do not make it worse," he said.
(Do not believe those stupid politicians. They want to send the Navy. That is just a collision of boats.)
Duterte has largely set aside the Philippines' row with Beijing over the key waterway to court trade and investments, but also occasionally criticized China's actions there.
Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and Taiwan also have partial claims to the waterway. The US, while not a party to the maritime dispute, has been calling for restraint and freedom of navigation on the South China Sea.
With a report from Agence France-Presse