The Philippine military has once again called on China’s government to cease its “unsafe actions” in the South China Sea, after a Chinese navy ship shadowed and attempted to cut across the bow of a Philippine navy vessel conducting a resupply mission late last week.
In a statement late yesterday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) alleged that a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel crossed a Philippine Navy transport ship’s bow at a distance of 350 yards, not far from Thitu Island, the Philippines’ largest and most strategically important outpost in the South China Sea. The Philippine Navy’s BRP Benguet was reportedly en route to Commodore Reef, where the Philippines maintains a small military outpost.
According to the AFP, the BRP Benguet issued consecutive radio challenges to the PLAN warship and demanded that it steer clear from its path. The Chinese ship responded by citing “their so-called and patently baseless ‘10-dash line’ narrative,” the AFP said. It also released a video of the incident, which shows the alleged Chinese vessel approaching the path of a Philippine ship, before veering away.
“These dangerous and offensive maneuvers by China’s PLAN not only risk collision but also directly endanger the lives of maritime personnel from both sides,” AFP commander Romeo Brawner said in the statement. The statement added that China’s “aggressive maneuvers” had “infringe[d] upon the country’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction” and were “violations of international law.”
The incident is the latest in a series of near collisions that have taken place in contested parts of the South China Sea, over which China has declared an expansive maritime claim. These have grown more common, or at least more publicized, as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has strengthened security ties with the United States, the Philippines’ longstanding treaty ally, after six years of stagnation under his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
Many of the incidents have resulted from Chinese attempts to impede Philippine resupply missions to personnel stationed on the nine Philippine-occupied reefs and islands in the West Philippine Sea, as Manila refers to its portion of the South China Sea.
Much of the recent tension has taken place over Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, which Manila refers to as Ayungin Shoal and Beijing as Ren’ai Jiao. On August 5, China’s Coast Guard blocked and shot a water cannon at a Philippine navy-chartered supply boat in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal.
The Chinese action forced the Philippine Navy to abandon its attempts to resupply the Sierra Madre, a decrepit World War II-era ship that was intentionally grounded in the shoal’s shallow waters in 1999. The Armed Forces of the Philippines condemned the action as “excessive” and “dangerous.”
While the Philippines succeeded in conducting two subsequent resupply missions to the Sierra Madre, Beijing has kept up its pressure across the contested waterway. Late last month, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) announced that it had discovered an underwater barrier installed by China’s coast guard to block access to a lagoon at Scarborough Shoal. Before removing the barrier, the PCG publicly condemned its installation, which it said had prevented fishermen from nearby Luzon from entering the shoal, “depriving them of their fishing and livelihood activities.”
Scarborough Shoal, which lies in a different part of the South China Sea around 200 kilometers west of the island of Luzon, well inside the Phliippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, fell under China’s control after a 10-week stand-off with the Philippines in 2012. The China Coast Guard has since maintained a nearly permanent presence at the shoal.
As Jay Batongbacal, a lawyer and professor at the University of the Philippines, told The Guardian last month, China’s “gray zone” brinksmanship is raising the temperature in the South China Sea to dangerous levels. Any one of these close encounters has the potential to set off a more substantial conflict between the two nations, which in turn could draw in outside nations like the United States. As Batongbacal put it, “The risk [of] miscalculation is getting higher because of China’s escalation.”