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MANILA, Dec 11 (Reuters) – The Philippines on Monday called the actions of Chinese vessels against its boats carrying out South China Sea resupply missions over the weekend – including one with a senior Philippine military official aboard – a “serious escalation.”
Manila accused the Chinese coastguard and maritime militia of repeatedly firing water cannons at its resupply boats, causing “serious engine damage” to one, and “deliberately” ramming another. Philippine Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Romeo Brawner said he was onboard a vessel that was both sprayed with a water cannon and rammed.
“This is a serious escalation on the part of the agents of the People’s Republic of China,” Jonathan Malaya, spokesperson of the National Security Council, said in a press conference where officials showed images and videos of the water cannons and ramming.
Brawner told Philippine radio station DZBB that he was unhurt and that he did not believe China knew he was onboard the boat.
The Philippines has filed diplomatic protests and has summoned China’s ambassador over its “aggressive” actions in the South China Sea, which a foreign ministry official said were a “threat to peace, good order and security.”
China’s foreign ministry said on Monday it had lodged solemn representations and a strong protest with the Philippine side over what it said was a collision on Sunday.
The Philippine vessels “ignored Chinese coastguard’s warnings and insisted on rushing into” waters near the Second Thomas Shoal, ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a news briefing, adding that China’s operation was “professional, reasonable and legal.”
The Philippine ships were attempting to resupply military personnel stationed on a warship run aground years ago for use as a base.
Mao said the responsibility for the “current repeated emergencies” at the disputed shoal lay with the Philippine side, which “refused to tow away the illegally beached warships and attempted to reinforce them to achieve permanent occupation.”
China urged the Philippines to stop its “maritime violations and provocations” and stop its “groundless attacks and smears” against China, she said.
Jay Batongbacal, a Manila-based expert on maritime law, said the latest incidents were “clearly another incremental escalation.”
“The use of water cannon this time is not mere dousing but had forceful impact, deliberately causing damage to vessels. And harassment of the civilian convoy is another step up in their threats,” Batongbacal said.
It was not the first time China has used water cannons against Philippine vessels undertaking resupply missions for troops on features Manila occupies in the South China Sea; in August, the Philippines delayed a resupply mission by two weeks after its boats were sprayed.
The maritime confrontation between the Philippines and China during the weekend comes less than a month after leaders of both nations met on the sidelines of an economic summit in San Francisco to formulate ways forward in the South China Sea.
“There is a dissonance between what is being said and promised with what’s happening in the waters,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Teresita Daza said in the briefing on Monday.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has increasingly complained about China’s “aggressive” behavior, and he has sought closer ties with its treaty ally the United States.
China claims sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea, pointing to a line on its maps that cuts into the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Taiwan, which China also claims as part of its territory, has said it does not accept Beijing’s maps.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said the line on China’s maps has no legal basis, a ruling the United States supports, but Beijing rejects.
The United States has called out China for interfering in the Philippines’ maritime operations and undermining regional stability, and urged Beijing to stop “its dangerous and destabilizing conduct” in the strategic waters.
It reaffirmed its commitment to the mutual defense pact between Washington and Manila, and called for stability after what it called China’s “unsafe… operational behavior,” a Pentagon spokesperson said on Monday.
China’s Mao said that the maritime disputes between China and the Philippines were an issue between the two countries and that “no third party has the right to intervene.”
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Mikhail Flores, and Liz Lee and Ethan Wang in Beijing; additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor and Gerry Doyle)(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023.
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