MANILA -- The sinking of a Filipino boat hit by a Chinese vessel is "a simple maritime incident" that is being blown "out of proportion", Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said Monday.
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 earlier said.
The fishermen "have no complaint" against President Rodrigo Duterte, who has yet to make any public comment on the issue, Piñol told ANC.
"I don't know why the President should be dragged into this issue. In our perspective at the Department of Agriculture, this is just a simple maritime incident which should be handled at our level," said the official.
"I don't understand why people are blowing this out of proportion," he added.
Piñol noted that some social posts have claimed that the incident was orchestrated to raise tensions between the Philippines and China, a theory that he rejected as a "figment of the imagination."
The Agriculture Secretary earlier Monday spoke with the owner of the boat and its cook, Richard Ablaza, who was the only crew member awake before the allision.
"I don't doubt his statements because what would his agenda be in telling lies? I believe that statement of the fisherman," said Piñol.
"Whether the ramming was intentional or accidental, that is a matter that should be investigated," he added.
Two of the fishermen earlier said they reached about 2 hours to reach a Vietnamese vessel who rescued them and their companions.
The capsized boat's owner said she lost P700,000 worth of goods and an investment of P500,000, according to Piñol.
Duterte has largely set aside the once tense stand-off with Beijing over the resource-rich waterway, as he pursued investments from the world's number 2 economy.
But last month, he criticized Beijing's assertive stance over the sea, saying "I love China... but it behooves upon us to ask, 'Is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?"
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday called the incident "an ordinary maritime traffic accident." He said it was irresponsible for the Philippines to "politicize the incident without verification."
Competing claims over the South China Sea are a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it, and rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath its waters.
With a report from Agence France-Presse