China again attempted to block Philippine ships from delivering supplies Friday to Manila’s troops stationed at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
Chinese vessels have acted aggressively in other recent missions to deliver supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre, a ship that serves as Manila’s military outpost at the shoal known locally as Ayungin Shoal.
“China Coast Guard (CCG) and Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels recklessly harassed, blocked, executed dangerous maneuvers in another attempt to illegally impede or obstruct a routine resupply and rotation mission to BRP Sierra Madre (LS 57) at Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal),” the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said in a statement Friday, referring to South China Sea waters claimed by Manila in the South China Sea.
“CCG vessel 5203 deployed water cannon against Philippine supply vessel M/L Kalayaan,” it said. M/L, or motor launch, implies a small-sized, motor-powered boat.
The Kalayaan and another supply boat, the Unaizah Mae 1, were “also subjected to extremely reckless and dangerous harassment at close proximity” by Chinese vessels inside the shoal’s lagoon during their approach to BRP Sierra Madre, said the statement.
“Nonetheless, both supply boats were able to successfully reach LS 57 [BRP Sierra Madre],” the Philippine National Task Force statement added. “We condemn, once again, China’s latest unprovoked acts of coercion and dangerous maneuvers … that has put the lives of our people at risk.”
Manila deliberately ran the rusty, old, World War II-era Sierra Madre aground in 1999 to serve as its outpost at the shoal and has to dispatch ships on a regular basis to deliver fresh supplies to its military personnel there.
A graphic provided by Ray Powell, a fellow at the U.S. Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, shows Philippine Coast Guard ships accompanying the two supply boats surrounded by a large number of Chinese vessels.
“In total, 24 Chinese ships were involved in the incident, including four Coast Guard ships. The rest were maritime militia ships,” Powell said.
“Beijing is testing Manila’s nerves,” said Malcolm Davis, a defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
“China will keep on conducting such blockades with the hope that Manila will give up its RoRe [rotation and resupply] missions but it won’t happen,” Davis told Radio Free Asia, a news site affiliated with BenarNews.
When and how the United States, the Philippines’ treaty ally, will get involved remains to be seen, according to the analyst. By a mutual defense treaty, Washington is obliged to defend its ally in case it is attacked.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department on Friday said it stood with the Philippines.
“The PRC’s actions are inconsistent with international law and follow a pattern of dangerous operational behavior in the South China Sea,” a department statement issued Friday said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
“We urge the PRC to respect the high seas freedoms of navigation guaranteed to all States under international law.”
The U.S. reiterated that Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft – including those of its Coast Guard – anywhere in the South China Sea.”
The Chinese Coast Guard also swiftly issued a statement calling Manila’s mission “illegal.”
Spokesperson Gan Yu said in a statement that “two small transport ships and three coast guard ships from the Philippines entered the waters adjacent to Ren’ai Reef (Chinese name for Second Thomas Shoal) in China’s Nansha (Spratly) Islands without permission from the Chinese government.”
“The Chinese Coast Guard follows Philippine ships in accordance with the law, takes control measures, and makes temporary special arrangements for the Philippines to transport food and other necessary daily supplies,” Gan said.
He said the Philippines’ actions “violate China’s territorial sovereignty, violate the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and violate its own commitments.”
For its part, Manila said the Philippine Embassy in China “has démarched the Chinese foreign ministry and protested” against China’s actions.
As of Nov. 7, the Philippines has made 58 diplomatic protests against what it sees as China’s violations of its sovereignty in the South China Sea.
Last month Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines to protest two similar incidents, one of which led to a small collision of ships.
Second Thomas Shoal is about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Philippine island of Palawan, and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s Hainan island.
It is claimed by the Philippines, China, Vietnam and Taiwan, but is located inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).