US condemns China’s ‘escalatory’ actions in the South China Sea

Strong statement from Washington after China and Philippines trade blame over collision near disputed shoal.
By RFA and BenarNews Staff
2024.06.17
US condemns China’s ‘escalatory’ actions in the South China Sea Philippine navy ship BRP Sierra Madre is seen at the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, at the South China Sea, April 23, 2023.
AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Updated at 18:27 ET on June 17, 2024.

The United States on Monday condemned “escalatory and irresponsible actions" by China to block resupply by the Philippines of an outpost in the South China Sea and warned that attacks on Philippine vessels could trigger a U.S. commitment to come to the defense of its ally.

The stern criticism of Beijing, issued by both the White House and State Department, came hours after China gave a much different account of events. It said a Philippine supply vessel “dangerously” approached a Chinese ship near a disputed shoal, causing a collision.

Philippine officials, however, said it was Chinese ships that behaved recklessly as the Philippines sought to deliver supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre in the Second Thomas Shoal.

The Sierra Madre is a World War II-era warship that was deliberately run aground on the shoal in 1999 to serve as a Philippine military outpost. The Philippines runs regular rotation and resupply missions to the shoal, which it refers to as Ayungin. 

There have been frequent cat-and-mouse episodes between China – which claims most of the South China Sea for itself – and the Philippines. Those incidents have grown in intensity in recent months.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby were both strongly critical of China on Monday and supportive of the Philippines.

"PRC vessels’ dangerous and deliberate use of water cannons, ramming, blocking maneuvers, and towing damaged Philippine vessels, endangered the lives of Philippine service members, is reckless, and threatens regional peace and stability," Miller said in a statement.


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Miller said that an international tribunal had found in July 2016 that China “has no lawful maritime claims to the waters around Second Thomas Shoal – a low-tide feature clearly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.”  

Miller added that Washington "reaffirms that Article IV of the 1951 United States-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft – including those of its Coast Guard – anywhere in the South China Sea."

‘Illegal intrusion’

The incident came two days after the China Coast Guard began enforcing a new order allowing its force to detain foreign ships and crew suspected of “trespassing” into Chinese-claimed waters.

The China Coast Guard said a supply ship from the Philippines “illegally intruded into the waters adjacent to Ren'ai Reef,” which is what China calls the Second Thomas Shoal.

It said the Philippine supply ship ignored its warnings, violated international regulations for preventing collisions at sea, and “deliberately and dangerously” approached the Chinese vessel in an “unprofessional manner, resulting in a collision.”

“The responsibility lies entirely with the Philippines,” it said.

Beijing’s foreign ministry defended the Chinese coastguard’s actions.

“China Coast Guard took necessary control measures to stop the Philippine vessels in accordance with the law. The maneuvers at the scene were professional, restrained, justified, and lawful,” spokesman Lin Jian said in a news briefing on Monday.

'Aggressive and reckless'

But the Philippine National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea claimed China had engaged in “dangerous maneuvers, including ramming and towing" while Philippine authorities were conducting a routine rotation and resupply mission at Ayungin.

“Despite the illegal, aggressive, and reckless actions by the Chinese maritime forces, our personnel showed restraint and professionalism, refrained from escalating the tension, and carried on with their mission,” the task force said in a statement.

“Their actions put at risk the lives of our personnel and damaged our boats, in blatant violation of international law, particularly the United Nations Charter, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” it said.

Manila’s Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said that China's "dangerous and reckless" behavior would be resisted by the Philippine military. “We will exert our utmost in order to fulfill our sworn mandate to protect our territorial integrity, sovereignty, and sovereign rights.”

Tensions

Tensions between China and the Philippines at the shoal have in recent months been the most serious in years in the resource-rich South China Sea, where six parties hold overlapping claims with Beijing’s the most expansive, including more than 80% of the waters, according to analysts.

China has been blocking the Philippines’ efforts to bring supplies to the marines stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre, saying the voyages violate China’s jurisdiction despite the reef being located well inside Manila’s EEZ.

In March, China Coast Guard and maritime militia ships were accused of firing a water cannon at a Philippine supply boat near the shoal, causing significant damage to the ship and injuring its crew. 

Edited by Taejun Kang, Malcolm Foster and Mat Pennington. 

Recasts and updates to include a statement from the U.S. State Department. 

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