China, Philippines Trade Blame for Ship Collision in South China Sea

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | Southeast Asia

China, Philippines Trade Blame for Ship Collision in South China Sea

Once again, Chinese and Philippine vessels collided during an attempted resupply to Filipino troops at Second Thomas Shoal.

China, Philippines Trade Blame for Ship Collision in South China Sea

In this Aug 22, 2023, filed photo, a Philippine supply boat sails near the BRP Sierra Madre during a rotation and resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

A Chinese vessel and a Philippine supply ship collided near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Monday, China’s coast guard said, in the latest flare-up of escalating territorial disputes that have sparked alarm.

The coast guard said a Philippine supply ship entered waters near the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands, part of a territory claimed by several nations.

The Philippines says the shoal falls within its internationally recognized exclusive economic zone and often cites a 2016 international arbitration ruling invalidating China’s expansive South China Sea claims based on historical grounds.

The Chinese coast guard said the Philippine craft “ignored China’s repeated solemn warnings … and dangerously approached a Chinese vessel in normal navigation in an unprofessional manner, resulting in a collision.”

“The Philippines is entirely responsible for this,” the coast guard said in its statement on the social media platform WeChat.

Meanwhile, the Philippine military called the Chinese coast guard’s report “deceptive and misleading,” and said it would “not discuss operational details on the legal humanitarian rotation and resupply mission at Ayungin Shoal, which is well within our exclusive economic zone.” It used the Philippine name for the shoal, where Filipino navy personnel have transported food, medicine, and other supplies to a long-grounded warship that has served as Manila’s territorial outpost.

Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said his country’s armed forces would resist “China’s dangerous and reckless behavior,” which “contravenes their statements of good faith and decency.”

“We will exert our utmost in order to fulfill our sworn mandate to protect our territorial integrity, sovereignty, and sovereign rights,” Teodoro said. “It should now be clear to the international community that China’s actions are the true obstacles to peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

The United States condemned China’s “aggressive, dangerous maneuvers” near the shoal, which “caused bodily injury, damaged Philippine vessels and hindered lawful maritime operations to supply food, water and essential supplies to Philippine personnel within the Philippine exclusive economic zone,” U.S. Ambassador to Manila MaryKay Carlson said in a statement on X.

Two speedboats – attempting to deliver construction materials and other supplies to a military vessel stationed at the shoal – accompanied the supply ship, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, which described its coast guard’s maneuver as “professional, restrained, reasonable, and lawful.”

The Foreign Ministry did not expand on the extent of the damage to the Chinese or Philippine vessels.

Several incidents have happened in recent months near the shoal, which lies less than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from the Philippines’ coast. Manila maintains an outpost at Second Thomas Shoal aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, which was deliberately grounded in 1999. The rust-encrusted Sierra Madre remains an actively commissioned military vessel, meaning an attack on it could be considered by the Philippines as an act of war.

China has increasingly become assertive in pressing its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, which has led to a rising number of direct conflicts with other countries in the region, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam.

A new law by China, which took effect Saturday, authorizes its coast guard to seize foreign ships “that illegally enter China’s territorial waters” and to detain foreign crews for up to 60 days. The law renewed a reference to 2021 legislation that says China’s coast guard can fire upon foreign ships if necessary.

At least three coastal governments with claims to the waters – the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan – have said they would not recognize the law.

The territorial disputes have strained relations and sparked fears the conflict could bring China and the United States, a longtime treaty ally of the Philippines, into a military confrontation. Washington lays no territorial claims to the busy seaway, a key global trade route, but has warned that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines if Filipino forces, ships, and aircraft come under an armed attack in the South China Sea.

Aside from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are also involved in the long-seething territorial disputes, which are regarded as a flashpoint in Asia and a delicate fault line in the longstanding China-U.S. rivalry in the region.

Indonesia has also confronted Chinese coast guard and fishing fleets in the past in the gas-rich waters off the Natuna islands in the fringes of the South China Sea where it blew Chinese fishing boats it had taken under custody. Its navy also fired warning shots at Chinese vessels straying into what Jakarta regards as its exclusive economic zone.