The Philippines has accused China’s coastguard of using a water cannon to block a Philippine military supply boat in the South China Sea, condemning the actions as illegal, “excessive” and “dangerous”.
The confrontation on Saturday was the latest flare-up in the long-running territorial conflicts involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
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China asserts sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, but a United Nations-backed tribunal concluded in 2016 that its expansive claim was groundless.
Philippine military and coastguard officials said the latest encounter took place near the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef where a handful of its troops live on a rusty World War II-era ship that was intentionally grounded in 1999.
They said navy personnel on board two chartered supply boats were cruising toward the shoal, escorted by Philippine coastguard ships when a Chinese coastguard ship approached and used a powerful water cannon to block the vessels from delivering food, water and fuel to the troops guarding the reef.
The Chinese ship’s action was “in wanton disregard of the safety of the people on board” the Philippine navy-chartered boat and violated international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said in a statement.
The Chinese ship’s “dangerous manoeuvres” and its “excessive and offensive actions against Philippine vessels” prevented one of the two Philippine boats from completing its mission, the armed forces said.
“We call on the China Coast Guard and the Central Military Commission to act with prudence and be responsible in their actions to prevent miscalculations and accidents that will endanger people’s lives,” it added.
It was not clear if any of the Filipino sailors were wounded in the incident.
China Coast Guard spokesperson Gan Yu responded that China has “indisputable” sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their adjacent waters, including the Second Thomas Shoal.
“We urge the Philippine side to immediately stop its infringing activities in this waters,” Gan posted on the coastguard’s WeChat social media account.
After the incident, the United States said China’s “repeated threats to the status quo in the South China Sea [were] directly threatening regional peace and stability” and that Washington stands with its Philippine allies in the face of such “dangerous actions”.
“The United States reaffirms an armed attack on Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces – including those of its Coast Guard in the South China Sea – would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” it said in a statement.
While the US lays no claims to the South China Sea, it has often lashed out at China’s aggressive actions and deployed its warships and fighter jets in patrols and military exercises with regional allies to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight, which it says is in its national interest.
China has warned the US to stop meddling in what it calls a purely Asian dispute and has warned of unspecified repercussions.
Additionally, Beijing has criticised a recent agreement by the Philippines and the US, which are longtime treaty allies, allowing American forces access to additional Philippine military camps under a 2014 defence agreement.
China fears the access will provide Washington with military staging grounds and surveillance outposts in the northern Philippines across the sea from Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory, and in Philippine provinces facing the South China Sea.