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Manila says China obstructs, damages its ships at disputed shoal

Philippines Coast Guard (USNI/Released)
May 01, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Philippines said that Chinese coast guard vessels fired water cannons at two of its ships on Tuesday, causing some damage  in the latest confrontation near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

The shoal, called Bajo De Masinloc in the Philippines and Huangyan Dao in China, is within the Philippine exclusive economic zone but is under de-facto control by China.

Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Jay Tarriela said in a statement that the Philippine coast guard ship BRP Bagacay and fishery patrol ship BRP Bankaw were carrying out “a legitimate maritime patrol” in the waters near the shoal.

“During the patrol, the Philippine vessels encountered dangerous maneuvers and obstruction from four China Coast Guard vessels and six Chinese maritime militia vessels,” Tarriela said.

Chinese vessels fired water cannons at the BRP Bankaw first, and afterwards at the BRP Bagacay, causing damage to both ships, he said.

Philippine media reported that Chinese coast guard ship 3305 also collided with the BRP Bankaw, damaging its railings.

A video clip released by the Philippine Coast Guard shows the BRP Bagacay being shot at with powerful streams of water by Chinese vessels 3105 and 5303. As a result, the Philippine ship’s suffered damage to its railing and canopy. 

“This damage serves as evidence of the forceful water pressure used by the China Coast Guard in their harassment of the Philippine vessels,” the Philippine spokesman said, adding that the Philippine ships continued their maritime patrol despite the harassment.

The Chinese Coast Guard has also installed a 380-meter floating barrier that covers the entire entrance of the shoal, “effectively restricting access to the area,” Tarriela noted.

Chinese spy ship

China Coast Guard Spokesperson Gan Yu said that on April 30, Philippine Coast Guard Ship 4410 and Government Ship 3004 ignored China’s repeated warnings, insisting on “invading the waters” adjacent to China’s Huangyan Island. 

“In accordance with the law, the Chinese Coast Guard took necessary measures such as follow-up, water cannon warnings, and blockade control to drive away illegally intruding Philippine ships,” the statement said.

China claimed its operations were “professional, standardized and legal,” saying the Philippines’ actions “infringe on China’s sovereignty and seriously violate international law and basic norms of international relations.”

It urged the Philippines to stop what it called “infringement” on territory where China claims sovereignty, saying the Coast Guard would continue to carry out “rights protection” in the area.

China’s state media reported on Tuesday morning that Chinese ships expelled two Philippine vessels that “intruded into the waters adjacent to Huangyan Dao.” 

China’s state-run tabloid Global Times quoted a Chinese analyst as saying that “professional control measures taken by the Chinese side are required to prevent the escalation of a possible maritime confrontation.”

The Philippines says its ships that routinely sail to the area around the Scarborough Shoal to distribute fuel and food supplies to fishermen have been harassed by Chinese vessels. 

China claims historical rights over most of the South China Sea even though a landmark international arbitration case brought by Manila in 2016 rejected those claims entirely.

The Scarborough Shoal was under the Philippines’ control until 2012 when a standoff resulted in China’s taking over.

The latest confrontation took place as a major U.S.-Philippines annual military exercise is underway, this year with the participation of France and Australia.

Exercise Balikatan 2024 has just completed a five-day multilateral maritime exercise component that began on Apr. 25. 

The combined naval force of one U.S. and one French warship, together with two Philippine vessels, was constantly shadowed by Chinese surveillance ships, as well as other surface combatants, according to the Philippine military, quoted in domestic media.

Surveillance ships, commonly known as “spy ships” for their reconnaissance capabilities, have been frequently spotted at the times the United States and its allies stage major naval drills, including the biennial Rim of the Pacific.

Radio Free Asia contacted the Chinese foreign ministry for comment but did not immediately receive a response.

More than 16,000 troops from the Philippines and the U.S are taking part in the Balikatan 2024 which is scheduled to end on May 10.