A Chinese Coast Guard vessel is seen as Philippine Coast Guard personnel and journalists on a semi-rigid inflatable boat sail en route to Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, November 10, 2023. Photo by Jam Sta Rosa/AFP via Getty Images

ABOARD THE BRP CABRA (AP) — As a U.S. Navy surveillance plane flew in circles, keeping a close watch, dozens of Chinese Coast Guard and accompanying ships chased and surrounded Philippine ships during the latest confrontation in one of the South’s most dangerous hot spots. China Sea.

At the height of Friday’s four-hour standoff on the high seas, a Chinese coast guard ship fired a water cannon at a Philippine motorboat delivering food and other supplies to Philippine forces on a ship abandoned and rusting wartime building that serves as the country’s fragile territorial outpost at Second Thomas Shoal.

China has firmly maintained its claims to almost the entire strategic waterway, clashing with its smaller neighbors and drawing in the United States, Manila’s ally and China’s main rival in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington and its allies have deployed warships and combat aircraft to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, strengthen deterrence and reassure allies like the Philippines.

There are fears that recurring clashes at Second Thomas Shoal, located in the Philippines’ UN-sanctioned exclusive economic zone but claimed by China and surrounded by its flotilla, could spark an armed conflict between the United States and China. Philippine officials said Saturday they would never take any action that could spark a wider conflict, but would not be deterred from defending the country’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea.

Despite Chinese blockades and coercive maneuvers, the Philippine contingent managed to resupply the handful of Filipino marines aboard the BRP Sierra Madre and departed without incident. The Philippine warship, donated by the United States, collapsed over time but is still in service, meaning an armed attack would be considered an act of war by Manila.

Two Associated Press journalists and several other media members invited aboard three Philippine Coast Guard vessels securing two supply boats witnessed the dangerous cat-and-mouse maneuvers in rough surf. This is part of a shameful campaign. Philippine officials said they would continue to denounce China’s growing aggression on one of the world’s most important trade routes.

Philippine forces will continue to adhere to the rule of law and will not be provoked by China’s heavy-handed tactics, said Commodore Tarriela of the Philippine Coast Guard.

“No matter how dangerous the maneuver they are going to throw at us, whether they use water cannons or military-grade lasers, we are not going to allow them to take Philippine Coast Guard personnel on board of our ships to intensify the situation. tensions,” Tarriela said.

LEARN MORE: Philippines accuses China of using military-grade laser against coast guard ship

At least 38 Chinese vessels were spotted near the Second Thomas Shoal on Friday, including a Chinese navy fast assault craft and a hospital ship, the Philippine Coast Guard said.

One of the Philippine Coast Guard vessels, the BRP Cabra, was surrounded five times by the Chinese Coast Guard and other vessels, but each time managed to move away until it found itself surrounded near from the shoal.

“We become more confident every time we pass through the Chinese blockades,” Cabra commander Emmanuel Dangate told the AP. “We feel even more the need for everyone to respect international regulations to prevent collisions.”

The campaign to denounce Chinese aggression at sea will continue, Tarriela told a news conference, where photographs, videos and drone footage of Friday’s clashes were shown.

“I believe our transparency initiative efforts have been very effective in rallying support from the international community to condemn China’s illegal actions and raise awareness among the Filipino people about what is happening,” Tarriela said.

Washington responded to Friday’s confrontation by repeating that it stood with its oldest ally in Asia “in the face of repeated harassment by the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea.”

The US State Department renewed its warning that Washington is obligated to defend the Philippines under a 1951 mutual defense treaty if Philippine forces, state-owned ships or aircraft, including those of its Coast Guard , “face armed attack” anywhere in the South China Sea.

“The PRC’s actions are inconsistent with international law and follow a pattern of dangerous operational behavior in the South China Sea,” the State Department said in a statement. He cited a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated China’s broad claims to the waterway on historical grounds, including Second Thomas Shoal.

China refused to participate in the arbitration, raised by the Philippines in 2013, after Chinese ships took control and surrounded another disputed area, Scarborough Shoal. Beijing dismissed the 2016 decision as a sham and continues to defy it.

A Philippine government task force said Friday that vessels belonging to China’s coast guard and its paramilitary maritime militias “harassed, blocked and recklessly executed dangerous maneuvers in another attempt to obstruct or unlawfully impede a routine resupply and rotation mission.”

China’s coast guard said it was “tracking Philippine ships in accordance with law, taking necessary control measures, and making temporary special arrangements for the Philippine side to transport food and other necessities.” said spokesperson Gan Yu in a statement.

He urged the Philippines to stop actions that infringe on China’s rights and said China will continue to defend its national sovereignty.

“China urges the Philippine side to immediately stop creating disturbances and provocations at sea and to tow the illegally stranded ship as soon as possible,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said at a press briefing. in Beijing.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a bloc of 10 countries that includes the Philippines, have stepped up efforts to speed up negotiations for a non-aggression pact called a code of conduct aimed at preventing war from breaking out in the South China Sea. But skirmishes at Second Thomas Shoal would likely continue steadily, with Chinese ships, including its navy, encircling the shoal and the Philippines pledging to defend it at all costs and maintain its forces there.

Last month, a Chinese coast guard ship and another vessel got stuck and then collided with a Philippine coast guard ship and a military supply boat near the shoal. China accused the Philippine ships of entering what it said were Chinese waters.

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