The Philippines condemned China’s Coast Guard on Sunday for firing water cannon at its vessels in the disputed South China Sea, describing the actions as “illegal” and “dangerous”.
China said it had taken “necessary controls” against Philippines boats that had “illegally” entered its waters.
Beijing claims almost all of the sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, and has ignored a 2016 international court ruling that its assertion has no legal basis.
The latest incident took place as the Philippine Coast Guard escorted boats carrying food, water, fuel and other supplies for Filipino military personnel stationed at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
In a statement, the US State Department condemned the Chinese actions, saying they were carried out by the coast guard and “maritime militia”, and that they directly threatened regional peace and stability.
Second Thomas Shoal is about 200 kilometres from the Philippine island of Palawan and more than 1000 kilometres from China’s nearest major landmass of Hainan island.
China’s coast guard and navy vessels routinely block or shadow Philippine ships patrolling the contested waters, Manila says.
Saturday’s incident was the first time since November 2021 that the Chinese coast guard had used water cannon against a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal.
“The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) strongly condemns the China Coast Guard’s (CCG) dangerous manoeuvres and illegal use of water cannons against the PCG vessels,” the Philippine Coast Guard said in a statement.
“Such actions by the CCG not only disregarded the safety of the PCG crew and the supply boats but also violated international law.”
The Armed Forces of the Philippines said China’s coast guard had “blocked and water cannoned” one of its chartered resupply vessels.
Due to the “excessive and offensive” actions, a second chartered vessel was unable to unload its cargo for the routine troop rotation and resupply operation, military spokesman Colonel Medel Aguilar said in a statement.
“We call on the China Coast Guard and the Central Military Commission to act with prudence and be responsible in their actions to prevent miscalculations and accidents that will endanger peoples’ lives,” Colonel Aguilar said.
The British and Australian embassies also expressed concern over the alleged Chinese actions, while a statement by the Canadian mission in Manila said it “unreservedly condemns the dangerous and provocative actions”.
In Beijing, China Coast Guard spokesman Gan Yu said, “Two repair ships and two coast guard ships from the Philippines illegally broke into the waters … in China’s Nansha Islands.”
Beijing “implemented necessary controls in accordance with the law and stopped Philippine ships carrying illegal building materials”, he added.
In response, the Philippine foreign ministry said the Southeast Asian country “exercises sovereign rights” over the shoal, which was within its exclusive economic zone.
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Manila and Beijing have a long history of maritime disputes over the South China Sea, but former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte was reluctant to criticise his more powerful neighbour as he sought closer ties with Beijing in the hope of attracting investment.
Since taking power in June 2022, however, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos has insisted he will not let China trample on his country’s rights in the sea, and has gravitated towards the United States as he seeks to strengthen defence ties.
Tensions between Manila and Beijing flared earlier this year after a Chinese coast guard vessel allegedly used a military-grade laser against a Philippine coast guard boat near Second Thomas Shoal.
Beijing accused the Philippine boat of intruding into China’s sovereign waters without permission.
After China occupied Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s, the Philippines ran a derelict navy vessel aground on the nearby shoal to assert Manila’s territorial claims in the waters.
Members of the Philippine marines are based there.
In another incident in April, a Chinese coast guard ship cut off the Philippine patrol vessel Malapascua as it carried journalists near Second Thomas Shoal.
An AFP team was on another coast guard vessel and witnessed the near-collision. In that incident, the Malapascua’s commanding officer Rodel Hernandez said the Chinese ship came within 45 metres of his boat and only his quick actions avoided the steel-hulled vessels crashing into each other.