Second Thomas Shoal Tensions Intensify

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Second Thomas Shoal Tensions Intensify

The Philippines, China, and the U.S. are upping a war of words over Beijing’s blocking of Filipino civilian vessels.

The U.S. has criticized China for provoking the Philippines in the Second Thomas Shoal even as Manila air-lifted supplies to its marines stationed on the disputed reef.

On Sunday, Chinese coast guard vessels blocked two Filipino civilian vessels from resupplying marines located on the Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines calls the Ayungin Shoal and China refers to as the Ren’ai Reef.

A military hospital ship ran aground near the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 and since then Filipino troops have been stationed on the vessel at all times as a symbol of the Philippines claims to the territory, which lies just 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. For some time now, Chinese coast guard vessels have guarded the approach to the Philippines ship, which has prompted Manila to start using civilian vessels to resupply the ships instead of naval assets.

Earlier this week, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs put out a statement criticizing China’s blocking of the resupply vessels. “Ayungin Shoal is part of the continental shelf of the Philippines and therefore, the Philippines is entitled to exercise sovereignty rights and jurisdiction in the area without the permission of other states,” the DFA said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.

It added that China’s actions “constitute a clear and urgent threat to the rights and interests of the Philippines” under existing international law. Furthermore, the statement pointed out: “For 15 years we have conducted regular resupply missions and personnel rotation without interference from China.”

The DFA had also summoned China’s charge d’affaires in the Philippines to deliver the protest, however, Beijing dismissed the accusations by stating that Manila’s “moves infringed China’s sovereignty and violated the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea.”

China accuses the Philippines of building structures on the Second Thomas Shoal in a bid to consolidate its claims of sovereignty over the disputed reef. An anonymous source in the Philippines Navy responded to those charges on Wednesday, telling Reuters: “We only intend to improve the conditions there, we have no plans to expand or build permanent structures on the shoal.”

The U.S. also waded into the dispute on Wednesday when State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington is “troubled” by China’s blocking of the two civilian vessels. “This is a provocative move that raises tensions. Pending resolution of competing claims in the South China Sea, there should be no interference with the efforts of claimants to maintain the status quo,” Psaki added.

The U.S. also rejected China’s claim that Manila was violating the 2002 CoC in the South China Sea, by noting that Manila had been resupplying the military ship stuck on the island well before 2002. The statements were consistent with the harder line the U.S. has been taking against China over its maritime disputes in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, the Filipino Navy official speaking with Reuters said that Manila had begun resupplying the marines stationed on the Second Thomas Shoal by air, but warned that this was at best a temporary solution.

“On Monday, we sent a navy Islander plane to drop food and water but it will only last a few days. We really have to send back the civilian boats. Since last year, we’ve been resupplying our troops using civilian ships to avoid confrontation and this was the first time China blocked them.”