Philippines' Duterte accepts China's proposal to jointly investigate collision

FILE PHOTO: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte arrives to greet the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Colonel Jesus Villamor Air Base in Manila

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has accepted China's proposal to jointly investigate allegations that a Chinese fishing vessel abandoned 22 Filipinos after it sank their boat in the South China Sea, his spokesman said on Saturday.

But aside from China and the Philippines, Duterte wants a third country to be included in the joint investigating committee that will be created to determine what really transpired in the Reed Bank, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said.

"We are by no means relinquishing any inch of our sovereign rights, nor compromising the rights of our 22 fishermen. We are demanding justice for our countrymen, and we are using all legal means toward that end," Panelo said in a statement.

Critics have accused Duterte of toeing China's line rather than taking a stand in defense of his country's fishermen and its sovereign rights after he described the sinking as a "little maritime accident".

Duterte's defense minister, navy chief and spokesman have publicly denounced the Chinese crew. His foreign minister, Teodoro Locsin had lodged a protest with Beijing and in a tweet on Friday rejected the idea of a joint investigation.

The issue could complicate what are determined efforts by Duterte to build a strong relationship with China, despite deep mistrust among his U.S.-allied defense apparatus, which remains wary about China's maritime militarization and what it sees as bullying and denial of Manila's access to its own offshore oil and gas reserves.

The sinking took place on June 9 near the Reed Bank, the site of untapped gas deposits that an international arbitration court in 2016 ruled the Philippines had sovereign rights to exploit. Beijing disputes that.

China's embassy in Manila has said the crew had sought to rescue the Filipino fishermen but fled after being "suddenly besieged by seven or eight Filipino fishing boats".

"A joint and impartial investigation will not only promote the expedient resolution of the issue, it will also be in accordance with international law ... which places paramount emphasis on the use of peaceful means to resolve international disputes", Panelo said.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Sandra Maler)