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Tensions flare up at disputed South China Sea again as Philippines and Chinese vessels collide

A Chinese coast guard vessel collided with a Philippine supply boat and later a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel was struck by a Chinese maritime militia ship. The incident marks the latest flare-up in territorial disputes between China and the Philippines.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Manila Published on: October 22, 2023 19:51 IST
Philippines Armed Forces released a footage of the
Image Source : AP Philippines Armed Forces released a footage of the collision with a Chinese vessel.

The Philippines on Sunday accused a Chinese coast guard ship and an accompanying vessel of ramming a Filipino coast guard ship and a boat carrying military supplies in two separate instances near the highly-contested Second Thomas Shoal, yet again flaring up tensions between the two countries in the disputed South China Sea.

A Philippine official said that there were no injuries among the Filipino crew members and an assessment of the damage to both vessels was underway. He said that the incident could have been worse if the vessels were not able to maneuver rapidly.

In an official press release, Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson Jay Tarriela said, "Earlier today two incidents of dangerous maneuvering by Chinese Coast Gaurd and militia vessels resulted in collisions during the latest routine and regular rotation and resupply (RORE) mission to BRP SIERRA MADRE (LS57)."

Tarriela accused the Chinese vessel of recklessly and irresponsibly conducting illegal and dangerous blocking maneuvers and actively engaging in harassing and obstructing Philippine vessels. He also said that the Philippine vessels were conducting legitimate activities within its exclusive economic zone in accordance with international law.

“We will not be deterred and we will continue to resupply our troops in BRP Sierra Madre despite provocations,” said Philippine National Security Adviser Eduardo M Ano. The PCG reported that the crews of the Philippine vessels involved in the collisions were safe and unharmed.

"Through the years, our resupply sorties have always been regular and routinary. Our sailors have met Chinese vessels’ dangerous maneuvers with utmost patience, competence, and professionalism to avoid any accidents or untoward incidents," said Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, Commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command (WESCOM)

Additionally, newly-appointed PCG Commandant Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan urged the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) to adhere to the maritime safety provisions and international norms for the safety of both parties.

China's response

On the other hand, the Chinese coast guard said the Philippine vessels “trespassed” into what it said were Chinese waters “without authorization” despite repeated radio warnings, prompting its ships to stop them. It blamed the Philippine vessels for causing the collisions.

"The Philippine side's behaviour seriously violates the international rules on avoiding collisions at sea and threatens the navigation safety of our vessels,” the Chinese coast guard said in a statement posted on its website, further accusing the Philippine vessels of carrying "illegal construction" vessels.

This is the first time Philippine officials have reported their vessels being hit by China's ships. In previous instances, Chinese officials have played down claims that the Chinese vessels enforcing Beijing's territorial claims were in fact paramilitary ships disguised as fishing boats.

Meanwhile, a Philippine government task force said that one of the two boats managed to maneuver and deliver supplies to the small contingent stationed the BRP Sierra Madre warship, despite Chinese attempts to stop them.

It said that the actions of the Chinese ships were “in utter blatant disregard of the United Nations Charter, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” and international regulations that aim to prevent sea collisions.

Another case of simmering China-Philippine tensions

This marks yet another flare-up in long-simmering territorial disputes between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest trade routes. China has reportedly surrounded the Second Thomas Shoal with coast guard ships and militia vessels to prevent the Philippines from delivering materials or supplies to reinforce the long-marooned BRP Sierra Madre there.

Earlier this month, a Chinese coast guard ship almost collided with a Filipino patrol vessel as the former was trying to block it, intensifying fears of a larger crisis over territorial disputes in the waters. Tarriela claimed that the Chinese vessel came within a metre of the Philippine vessel.

Several CCG and militia ships, including at least one navy warship, later emerged and formed a blockade in the high seas off the shoal. A Chinese radio operator asserted to the Philippines vessels that Beijing has "indisputable sovereignty" over the Second Thomas Shoal and outlying waters. "To avoid miscalculations, leave and keep out," the operator said.

Prior to that, a 300 m-long floating barrier was installed by China near the Bajo de Masinloc (BDM) shoal, also called the Scarborough Shoal. It was removed later at the command of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

In August, the Chinese Coast Guard allegedly used a water cannon to block a Filipino supply boat from delivering a new batch of troops, food, water and fuel to the Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed waters.

Why is China doing this?

China claims ownership over virtually the entire strategic waterway despite international rulings that invalidated Beijing's vast territorial claims, such as that in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international body based in The Hague. China rejected that ruling.

China's aggression in the South China Sea has put it in conflict with many Asian countries. A major clash can also involve the United States, which has vowed to defend the Philippines if any Filipino forces, ships and aircraft are attacked.

Philippines' claim over the 200-mile Scarborough Shoal lies was upheld by an arbitration decision in 2016 under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, China refused to recognise the 2016 arbitration ruling amid tense standoffs in the region.

Chinese coast guard ships have also blocked Filipino government vessels delivering supplies and personnel to the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, resulting in near-collisions that the Philippine government has condemned and protested.

Meanwhile, Marcos has vowed to defend the country's waters against Chinese aggression. "We're not looking for trouble but what we'll do is to continue defending the maritime territory of the Philippines and the rights of our fishermen, who have been fishing in those areas for hundreds of years," he said.

(with agency inputs)

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