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US reiterates warning to defend Philippines as tensions with China escalate in disputed waters

In separate incidents, 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. Beijing and Manila are locked in territorial disputes that escalated with this incident.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Updated on: October 23, 2023 19:52 IST
Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr chaired an
Image Source : AP Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr chaired an emergency meeting after the collisions.

After the latest confrontation between the Philippines and China in the disputed South China Sea, the United States on Monday renewed a warning that it would defend Manila in case of an armed attack under a treaty signed in 1951.

The warning came after 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.

Following the collisions, Philippine diplomats summoned an official from the Chinese embassy in Manila on Monday for a strongly worded protest. Although no injuries were reported, the encounters damaged a Philippine coast guard ship and a wooden-hulled supply boat operated by navy personnel, officials said.

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in the face of the People's Republic of China coast guard and maritime militia's dangerous and unlawful actions obstructing an October 22 Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal,” said the US State Department in an official statement issued by its embassy in Manila.

The US also accused China of violating international law by "intentionally interfering with the Philippine vessels' exercise of high seas freedom of navigation", while also citing a a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated China's expansive claims to the South China Sea on historical grounds.

The Philippines blast China for violating international norms

Meanwhile, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. called an emergency meeting with the defence secretary and other top military and security officials to discuss the latest hostilities. After the meeting, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro blasted China in a news conference for resorting to “brute force” and accusing Beijing of endangering Filipino crew members and twisting the facts to conceal its aggression.

"The Philippine government views the latest aggression by China as a blatant violation of international law. China has no legal right or authority to conduct law enforcement operations in our territorial waters and in our exclusive economic zone," said Teodoro.

The Philippine President has ordered a probe into the high-sea collisions, the secretary announced, but refused to divulge future steps to be taken by the government. "We are taking these incidents seriously at the highest levels of government... The Chinese government is deliberately obfuscating the truth," he added.

Teodoro said that the Philippines plans to raise alarm over the dangerous maneuvers by the Chinese ships in the talks between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a proposed code of conduct to avoid a major conflict in the South China Sea. The three-day negotiations would be held in Beijing, which Teodoro called "very ironic".

What does China say?

The senior Chinese diplomat who was summoned by Philippine foreign officials on Monday repeated China's assertion that the Philippine vessels intruded into Chinese territory.

"China once again urges the Philippines to take seriously China's grave concerns, honour its promise, stop making provocations at sea, stop making dangerous moves, stop groundlessly attacking and slandering China, and to tow away the illegally grounded' warship as soon as possible," said Zhou Zhiyong in a statement by the Chinese embassy in Manila.

Furthermore, the Chinese coast guard on Sunday blamed the Philippine vessels for causing the collisions and said the Filipinos were carrying construction materials to strengthen their outpost at the contested shoal.

What is the conflict?

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.

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.

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.

(with AP inputs)

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

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