The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said on Friday it was involved in a near-collision with Chinese vessels that carried out “dangerous maneuvers” in the South China Sea, the latest in a string of incidents in the disputed waters.
On Sunday morning, two China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels intercepted Philippine patrol boats and “exhibited aggressive tactics” near Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, the PCG said in a statement. At one point, CCG 5201 came within 50 yards (46 meters) of a Philippine ship.
“This close proximity posed a significant threat to the safety and security of the Philippine vessel and its crew,” coast guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarirela said in a statement. “Meanwhile, the CCG vessel 4202 persistently followed BRP Malabrigo at a distance of 700 yards, closely monitoring its movements.”
The Philippines had deployed two 44-meter vessels – BRP Malapascua and BRP Malabrigo – to carry out a week-long maritime patrol in the West Philippine Sea, part of the contested South China Sea within Manila’s exclusive economic zone. A small group of Filipino journalists was also on board.
In a separate incident, on April 21, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel with the bow number 549 crossed paths with Philippine vessels near Pag-asa Island, the PCG said.
China has competing claims in the South China Sea with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and against Beijing’s sweeping “nine-dash line,” but China has since refused to acknowledge the ruling.
The Department of Foreign Affairs on Friday called on China to respect the Philippines’ rights in the West Philippine Sea.
“The China Coast Guard’s interference with this routine patrol mission was totally inconsistent with freedom of navigation, and a number of documented incidents also involved highly dangerous maneuvers that were contrary to standard navigational practices,” department spokeswoman Maria Teresita Daza said in a statement.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Friday that the Philippine boats trespassed into waters near Ren’ai Reef, the Chinese name for Ayungin Shoal, and deliberately took “provocative actions,” citing the presence of journalists.
The Chinese maritime vessels acted in accordance with the law, while taking care to avoid the dangerous approach of the Philippine vessels, Reuters news agency quoted Mao as saying.
Daza said routine patrols in Philippine waters could not be premeditated or provocative, and called on Beijing to “refrain from actions that may cause an untoward incident.”
The recent incidents coincided with the visit of Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang to Manila, where he met his counterpart Enrique Manalo and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
During the meeting, Marcos said the two countries agreed to open more lines of communication to resolve maritime disputes.
The near-collision also came as the Philippines conducted its largest-ever “Balikatan” military exercise with the United States. The training culminated in the sinking of a mock enemy ship, a decommissioned World War II-era Philippine vessel, off the coast of Zambales province along the West Philippine Sea on Thursday.
Observers have said the military drills underline the strengthening alliance between Manila and Washington amid China’s increasingly assertive claims in the South China Sea.
During the recent maritime patrol, the PCG said it identified “over 100 alleged Chinese maritime militia vessels” spread across different shoals and islands, including Sabina Shoal, Pag-asa, and Julian Felipe Reef. Despite numerous radio challenges, these vessels refused to leave.
A large gathering of maritime militia vessels – a Beijing-backed armed fishing fleet – was spotted near Julian Felipe Reef. The PCG said it deployed rigid hull inflatable boats to disperse them but none of the vessels “reacted or made any attempts to vacate the area.”
In February, a CCG vessel directed a military-grade laser light twice at a Philippine ship, causing temporary blindness to the crew at the bridge. Manila filed a diplomatic protest over the incident, with Marcos himself summoning the Chinese envoy.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the deputy minority floor leader, said the recent events were just the latest in a “continuous, unbroken and apparently unrepentant” string of incidents that China should be made accountable for.
She said the foreign office should immediately file a diplomatic protest and the Marcos government immediately condemn China’s “ceaseless intimidation” in the strongest possible terms.
“The executive should not wait for an even worse incident in order to finally put its foot down and tell Beijing to cease and desist in this kind of aggressive action,” she said.
She noted, however, the government was correct in seeking cooperation with other countries because “a broader alliance is a better alliance.”
“Let us urgently work on building this bigger coalition of countries who are against China’s misbehavior, who uphold our victory at The Hague, and who want to preserve peace and stability in the region,” she said.
Marcos is expected to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden next week for a state visit, with regional security top of the agenda.
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