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Chinese coastguard vessels block Philippines counterparts in dramatic standoff at sea

It’s ‘the closest dangerous manoeuvre’ by any Chinese coastguard ship against a Philippine patrol ship

Arpan Rai
Friday 06 October 2023 13:11 BST
File: A Philippine supply boat, center, maneuvers around Chinese coast guard ships as they try to block its way near Second Thomas Shoal
File: A Philippine supply boat, center, maneuvers around Chinese coast guard ships as they try to block its way near Second Thomas Shoal (Associated Press)

A Chinese coastguard ship came dangerously close to a Philippine patrol ship in the South China Sea, sparking fears of a territorial dispute in the contested waters.

The Chinese ship manoeuvred and came within 4 metres of the patrol ship near the Second Thomas Shoal. One other Philippine coastguard vessel was blocked and surrounded by the Chinese coastguard and militia ships.

The altercation had dragged on for about eight hours on Wednesday after China formed a blockade in the high seas off the shoal that both nations have laid claim to.

Two supply boats being escorted by the Philippine coastguard had breached the Chinese blockade and delivered food and other supplies to a Filipino marine outpost at the shoal.

On Friday, the Philippines strongly condemned the incident that has become the latest flashpoint between the two. This is the second incident since early August that has shown confrontation between China and the Philippines.

“We condemn the behaviour of the Chinese coastguard vessel. They have been violating international law, particularly the collision regulations,” Philippines’ coastguard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said at a briefing.

He said a collision was averted when one of the two Philippine vessels, the BRP Sindangan, rapidly reversed its engine to avoid slamming into the Chinese coastguard ship that crossed its bow at a distance of only a metre.

It’s “the closest dangerous manoeuvre” by any Chinese coastguard ship against a Philippine patrol ship, Mr Tarriela said.

The incident took place when the Philippine patrol had invited The Associated Press to join a voyage as part of a strategy aimed at exposing aggressive actions in the South China Sea that China has been accused of.

The hostilities between the two erupted at dawn after the Chinese coastguard ship closely tailed the Philippine vessels enroute to the Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippine ships ran into the blockade that included militia ships and at least one navy warship.

Announcements of “China has indisputable sovereignty” over the shoal and outlying waters were made immediately by a Chinese radio operator who warned the BRP Sindangan to “avoid miscalculations, leave and keep out”.

The confrontation saw Filipino coastguard personnel respond by asserting their rights to the area and said they would proceed with the delivery of supplies.

This photo taken on 23 April 2023 shows the grounded Philippine navy ship BRP Sierra Madre where marines are stationed to assert Manila’s territorial claims at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea (AFP via Getty Images)

China has accused the Philippines of breaching their territorial control in the contested waters.

The Chinese coastguard claimed the Philippine vessels entered the waters “without permission from the Chinese government” and that “China firmly opposes the Philippines illegally transporting building materials to the ‘grounded’ military boat”.

It said it gave a stern warning to the Philippine vessels and monitored them throughout the process.

China has long claimed sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, even though it overlaps with the waters of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. The long-simmering territorial disputes on the world’s busiest trade routes are considered a sensitive fault line in the US-China rivalry in the region.

If a major clash were to erupt, it could see the US coming to the rescue of The Philippines if its forces, ships and aircraft come under armed attack.

A small contingent of Filipino marines and navy personnel has stood guard for years on a long-marooned, but still commissioned warship, the BRP Sierra Madre, at the shoal.

The navy ship was deliberately marooned in an attempt to show Manila’s territorial control of the shoal.

China has surrounded the dilapidated ship with its coastguard ships and militia vessels to prevent the Philippines from delivering construction materials Beijing fears could be used to reinforce the Sierra Madre and turn it into a permanent territorial outpost.

Philippine defence secretary Gilberto Teodoro expressed concern over Chinese actions at sea and said the government is ready to respond to potential emergencies, including any collision between Chinese and Philippine ships in the disputed waters.

“Naturally the concern is always there, and we take that into account,” he said on Tuesday. “We have plans depending on what happens.”

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