Tensions over the South China Sea escalated Monday with China filing a diplomatic complaint, the Philippines summoning Beijing’s ambassador, and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordering a probe a day after vessels from both nations collided in the disputed waters.
(Bloomberg) — Tensions over the South China Sea escalated Monday with China filing a diplomatic complaint, the Philippines summoning Beijing’s ambassador, and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordering a probe a day after vessels from both nations collided in the disputed waters.
A China Coast Guard vessel collided with a Philippines-contracted resupply boat early morning Sunday. In just over two hours, a Chinese maritime militia boat ran into a Philippine coast guard ship during the same operation to deliver supplies to an outpost in Second Thomas Shoal.
The “dangerous, illegal, and reckless maneuvers” by China including a coast guard ship, caused damage to Philippine vessels “within our exclusive economic zone and is being taken seriously at the highest level of government,” according to a statement issued by Marcos’s office on Monday.
A senior diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Manila met with a Philippine foreign ministry official and expressed strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Philippine vessels’ incursion, according to a statement. The diplomat urged the Philippines to stop its “provocations” at sea and “smearing” campaign, and tow away its stranded vessels as soon as possible.
The vessel to be resupplied — the BRP Sierra Madre — is a World War II-era ship that was placed in Second Thomas Shoal by the Philippines in 1999 in response to China’s occupation of nearby Mischief Reef four years prior. China, however, has repeatedly urged the Philippines to remove the ship that it said was “illegally” and “deliberately” ran aground at the shoal. Beijing also considers the shoal, which it calls Ren’ai Jiao, as part of its territory.
A social media account linked to the People’s Liberation Army accused the Philippines of misleading the world and providing a “window” for some forces to intervene in the South China Sea, a veiled reference to the US.
The encounter on Sunday follows Philippine efforts to push back against a growing number of incursions as Beijing asserts its claim to nearly all of a key waterway that’s resource-rich and vital to global trade. China said the collisions took place after the Philippine boats ignored warnings and approached Chinese vessels in an unsafe manner.
“We call on China to stop its provocative actions, act responsibly and in accordance with international law and UNCLOS,” National Security Council spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. “The Philippines will never be deterred by the provocative actions of China.”
The US said the incident represented “dangerous and unlawful actions” on the part of China as Japan also expressed support for the Philippines.
The ships “violated international law by intentionally interfering with the Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation,” the US State Department said in a statement on Sunday.
In addition to stepping up public exposure of such incidents, the Philippines and its treaty ally in the US have moved to expand defense cooperation, inflaming tensions between the two superpowers. But with the US already pre-occupied with the war in Ukraine and now a second conflict between Israel and Hamas, observers say China may see an opportunity to test America’s resolve in the Indo-Pacific region.
Asked whether the collision would prompt the Philippines to invoke the country’s longstanding treaty with the US that would require the latter to come to the Southeast Asian nation’s defense, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Teresita Daza said it was “something that needs to be studied.”
“So notwithstanding the events all over the world, we do not see any wavering on the part of the United States in its support for the Philippines,” Malaya said.
“I don’t rule out that they are taking advantage of a distracted US,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program chief at the German Marshall Fund of the US. “I expect this will escalate in the coming days and weeks.”
–With assistance from Philip J. Heijmans, Ditas Lopez and Manolo Serapio Jr..
(Updates with additional reporting, context and analyst quote)
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