Chinese coast guard ships blasted Philippine supply boats with water cannons over the weekend in the disputed South China Sea, ratcheting up tensions between the two nations.
Background of Territorial Disputes
The incidents occurred near Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, which both China and the Philippines claim. China seized control of the shoal after a tense naval standoff in 2012.
The Spratlys are a resource-rich chain of islands, reefs and atolls in the South China Sea that are claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Although largely uninhabited, the islands are strategically located for shipping lanes, fisheries and potential oil and gas deposits.
China bases its claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea on a “nine-dash line” that encompasses most of the waters. An international tribunal ruled this claim had no legal basis in 2016, but Beijing rejected the ruling.
Recent Confrontations Over Supply Mission
According to the Philippine military, two Chinese coast guard ships blocked and sprayed high-pressure streams of water on two Philippine boats on a resupply mission to troops stationed on Second Thomas Shoal on Saturday.
The Chinese ships took aggressive actions for several hours, even chasing the Philippine vessels as they retreated, the military said. The Filipino crews suffered injuries due to the powerful blasts.
On Sunday, Chinese vessels again harassed Philippine boats in the area, firing water cannons for the second straight day.
International Condemnation of ‘Dangerous Conduct’
The United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines, strongly condemned what it called China’s “dangerous, provocative actions” against the Philippine boats.
“The United States stands with our Philippine allies,” the State Department said. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also reaffirmed American defense commitments to the Philippines.
The clashes drew widespread international criticism of China’s increasingly assertive behavior over its sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
Japan called China’s actions “completely unacceptable” while Australia said the “dangerous and coercive acts” underscored the need for de-escalation in the region.
Marcos Vows to Uphold Philippine Sovereignty
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Sunday vowed to uphold his country’s sovereignty in the disputed sea despite China’s superior military might.
“We will continue to assert what we believe is rightfully ours without faltering and without fear,” Marcos said.
He said the government was documenting the actions of the Chinese ships with care and gathering evidence for potential legal action in the future.
|Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
|President of the Philippines
|Foreign Minister of China
|U.S. Secretary of State
The Philippine military released photographs showing Chinese ships opening fire with water cannons on a stationary Filipino vessel and chasing another boat.
Marcos also summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian on Sunday to express his government’s “displeasure” over the incidents. He said he would send his top diplomat to China to raise the issues “at the highest levels.”
China Claims Philippines Intruded First
China accused Philippine boats of intruding into Chinese waters without permission first, “infringing upon China’s sovereignty.”
It claimed a Philippine military vessel trespassed into waters near Renai Shoal on Friday and that Philippine fishing boats have “long lingered illegally” in the area. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Chinese coast guard ships responded with legal and restrained measures.
China released photos and videos showing Philippine fishing boats anchored inside the shoal.
Potential Impacts on Bilateral Relations
The water cannon attacks have raised tensions between China and new Marcos government, which took office in June.
Marcos has taken a pragmatic approach to China compared to his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who set aside the South China Sea disputes to court trade and investment from Beijing.
But the assertive actions by Chinese ships could force Marcos into adopting a stronger stance in defense of Philippine maritime rights.
Some lawmakers have urged Marcos to send the Chinese ambassador home to convey that the Philippines “will not turn a blind eye to acts of aggression in our sovereign territories.”
The incidents could fuel anti-China sentiment in the Philippines and put further pressure on the Marcos administration. It also shows China is willing to intimidate and harass rivals even beyond its own shores.
Further clashes in the disputed sea appear likely as China seeks to cement its claims and smaller rivals push back.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to cling to assertive policies across the board, including in maritime disputes.
With both sides digging in their positions, tensions over rocks, reefs and waters in the South China Sea will continue to simmer as a potential flashpoint.
The recent water cannon attacks highlight the urgent need for crisis communication mechanisms between China and Southeast Asian claimants to manage tensions and prevent confrontations from spiraling out of control.
All eyes will be on whether Manila files a new case against Beijing before an international tribunal over this latest flare-up involving Chinese coast guard ships.
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