Philippine president alarmed by Chinese attack in South China Sea

Water cannons injured four people on ship carrying supplies to Ayungin Shoal outpost.
By BenarNews staff
2024.03.06
Philippine president alarmed by Chinese attack in South China Sea The Philippine resupply ship Unaizah May 4 is hit by two China Coast Guard water cannons as it tries to enter Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the South China Sea, March 5, 2024.
Aaron Favila/AP

This week’s confrontation between Chinese and Philippine ships in the hotly disputed South China Sea signifies a “dangerous” and unprecedented escalation of Beijing’s harassment in the waterway, Filipino officials indicated on Wednesday.

The incident around Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal marked the first time that injuries were reported in any of the tense incidents at sea that have become more frequent lately, as Chinese ships try to block Philippine ships and boats from delivering supplies to Manila’s military outpost there.    

Four crew members aboard a military-contracted Philippine ship sustained minor injuries when a  water cannon blast from China Coast Guard ships shattered the windshield on the bridge during the incident on March 5, Filipino officials said.

Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, chief of the Philippine military’s Western Command, was aboard the Unaiza May 4, the civilian ship that was targeted by the water cannons, and said he witnessed the scene up close. 

“It’s very unusual. One hour (they were) circling us. I told myself it’s an indication they are really serious in monitoring us,” Carlos told BenarNews. 

He said the Chinese presence had surged hours before dawn broke on Tuesday. 

“When they water cannoned us, we were very slow. …We were not fast enough to run away from the water cannons,” he said. “They hit the windshield, but the crews were prepared for possible flooding in the engine room.”

Carlos said he dropped for cover when the water cannon hit the target – the impact shattering the windshield was caught on video. Tuesday’s incident marked the first time that Manila said people had been injured in these incidents. 

Philippine Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos gestures as he talks to reporters in Palawan province, southern Philippines, about the incident involving a resupply ship in the South China Sea, March 6, 2024. (Aaron Favila/AP)

The Unaiza May 4 was on a mission to bring provisions and remove some Filipino troops aboard the BRP Sierra Madre. Manila grounded the World War II-era navy ship on Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal to serve as its outpost there. 

But the supply ship was forced to abandon its mission after two China Coast Guard ships blocked its path and fired water cannons at it, breaking windows, nearly flooding its interior and injuring some crew members. 

Carlos said the Unaiza May 4 is larger than previous contracted-ships.

“We check whether we can use it in future resupply missions. It was an exciting trip. We tried. The mission to find out whether it can dock close to Sierra Madre failed,” the naval officer said. “We will do it again. We have to test if this can enter the shoal.”

Protest

The Philippines formally filed a diplomatic protest over Tuesday’s incident, making it the 10th protest lodged against China in 2024, and the 142nd since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. came to power in 2022. 

The incident fueled calls for the Marcos administration to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. The treaty calls on both nations to come to each other’s military aid in times of external aggression. 

On Wednesday, Marcos sought to calm public fears and said that while he viewed Tuesday’s incident as alarming, there was no need to invoke the treaty at this time.

“However, we continue to view with great alarm this continuing dangerous maneuvers and dangerous actions that are being done against our seamen, our Coast Guard,” Marcos said in a statement

“And this time, they damaged the cargo ship and caused some injury to some of our seamen, and I think that we cannot view this in any way but the most serious way,” he said. 

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, while the Philippines maintains that the shoal is located inside its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the waterway. Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also have territorial claims to the sea.

China has defended its action, saying it was justified because the Philippines intruded into its waters, despite the shoal internationally recognized as within Manila’s territorial jurisdiction. In 2016, the Philippines won a landmark case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that threw out China’s expansive claims.

In Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Wednesday called the China Coast Guard’s actions “justified, lawful, professional, restrained and beyond reproach.”

“The so-called arbitral award on the South China Sea arbitration that the Philippines and a handful of countries regard as a benchmark goes against international law including UNCLOS and it is completely illegal, null and void,” spokeswoman Mao Ning said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

ASEAN-Australia statement

Meanwhile in Australia, participants at a special summit to mark the 50th Anniversary of ASEAN-Australia Dialogue Relations issued the Melbourne Declaration, which included calls for peace in the South China Sea region.

“We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region. We emphasize the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea negotiations,” the statement said.

Responding to reporters, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday said, “I am very concerned and Australia is concerned about any unsafe and destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea. It is dangerous and it creates risks of miscalculation which can then lead to escalation.

“[T]here is a general recognition that we need to make sure that activity in the South China Sea alleviates any tension, doesn’t add to it.”

The National Task Force for West Philippines Sea briefs reporters in Manila about the South China Sea incident involving the China Coast Guard, March 6, 2024. (Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews)

On Wednesday, Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Teresita Daza said the Marcos administration had made sincere efforts to lessen the tensions in the South China Sea by allowing departmental representatives to hold discussions with their Chinese counterparts. 

“China however has made references to supposed agreements or arrangements out of these discussions,” Daza said. 

“The Philippines has not entered into any agreement, abandoning its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over EEZ and continental shelf, including in the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal,” she said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller condemned China’s latest actions and called on it to stop its “dangerous and destabilizing conduct” in the South China Sea.  

“As provided under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, the 2016 arbitral decision is final and legally binding on the PRC and the Philippines, and the United States calls upon the PRC to abide by the ruling and desist from its dangerous and destabilizing conduct,” he said on Tuesday, using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China. 

Miller said the mutual defense treaty extends to armed attacks on Philippine ships, including those of the coast guard, anywhere in the South China Sea.  

The Pentagon had previously said it was prepared to assist Manila if it invoked the 1951 treaty amid threats from other nations.

Jojo Riñoza and Jeoffrey Maitem in Manila contributed to this report.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.