WATER CANNONED, TOWED. This handout photo taken and released on Dec. 10 by the Philippine Coast Guard shows the M/L Kalayaan being towed after a Chinese coast guard ship unleashed its water cannon onto the vessel (inset), during a mission to deliver provisions at Second Thomas Shoal in disputed waters of the South China Sea. AFP

Water cannons fired at supply ships anew

A Philippine boat and a Chinese Coast Guard ship collided near a hotly contested reef on Sunday, with both countries trading blame for the latest confrontation in the disputed South China Sea.

Chinese ships also used water cannons on two supply boats and a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel during a resupply mission to a tiny garrison on Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the Spratly Islands, which is a flashpoint for Manila and Beijing.

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. and AFP Western Command commander Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos were reportedly on board one of the supply ships when it was water cannoned by the Chinese Coast Guard.

The incident comes a day after the Philippines accused the Chinese coast guard of using water cannons to “obstruct” three Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) boats delivering provisions to Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal, off the main island of Luzon.

The Philippines said Sunday that “China Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Militia vessels harassed, blocked, and executed dangerous maneuvers on Philippine civilian supply vessels.”

One of two boats carrying provisions was “rammed” by a Chinese  coast guard ship, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said in a statement.

A Chinese ship also used water cannons against the two supply boats and a Philippine Coast Guard vessel escorting the mission, the multi-agency task force said.

The water cannons caused “severe damage” to the engine of one of the supply boats, which had to be towed later, and damaged the mast of the coast guard vessel, the task force added.

The China Coast Guard, however, accused the Philippine boat of “deliberately colliding” with the Chinese vessel after “disregarding our multiple stern warnings.”

The Philippine boat “changed direction suddenly in an unprofessional, dangerous manner, deliberately colliding with our Coast Guard Vessel 21556, which was on a normal law enforcement route, and caused a scrape,” the China Coast Guard said in a statement.

It also alleged the Philippine vessels were “attempting to deliver construction materials” to the “illegally beached warship” on which the garrison is located.

Ayungin Shoal is about 200 kilometers from the western Philippine island of Palawan, and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass, Hainan island.

A handful of Filipino troops are stationed on the crumbling BRP Sierra Madre, which the Philippine Navy grounded on the reef in 1999 to check China’s advance in the waters.

The troops depend on the resupply missions for their survival.

One of the supply boats was able to deliver its cargo on Sunday, while the one involved in the collision was being towed by a Philippine Coast Guard vessel to Palawan, the task force said.

On Saturday morning, three BFAR vessels providing humanitarian support to Filipino fishers off Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) were also water cannoned at least eight times by CCG ships while a long-range acoustic device caused severe temporary discomfort and incapacitation to some Filipino crew.

The Philippines and China have a long history of maritime incidents in the contested South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars of trade pass annually.

Relations between Manila and Beijing have deteriorated under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has sought to improve ties with traditional ally Washington and push back against Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

Mr. Marcos warned last month that the situation in the waters had become “more dire.”

The China Coast Guard defended its Saturday water cannon attack on the BFAR boats, saying it took “control measures” against the Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea on Saturday.

In a statement posted on China Daily, the CCG said the three vessels of the BFAR were found “intruding” into the waters near Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) off Zambales province.

The BFAR boats were on their way to bring supplies to Filipino fishermen near the shoal when they were attacked by the CCG and the Chinese maritime militia.

These Philippine vessels were identified by the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) as Datu Sanday, Datu Bankaw, and Datu Tamblot, all of which were on a “regular humanitarian and support mission.”

China illegally claims Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, as part of its territory.

The maritime incident was the third time that CCG vessels used water cannons to stop Philippine civilian ships in the disputed waters. The first two encounters involved resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin Shoal on Aug. 5 and Nov. 10 this year.

Beijing’s claim of the entire South China Sea, including features inside the EEZs of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan, raised regional and international tensions, with several countries urging it to abide by international laws and rulings, including the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling awarded to Manila.

The Task Force on the West Philippine Sea said Chinese actions did not jibe with its call for peaceful negotiations.

“The systematic and consistent manner in which the People’s Republic of China carries out these illegal and irresponsible actions puts into question and significant doubt the sincerity of its calls for peaceful dialogue,” it said.

“Peace and stability cannot be achieved without due regard for the legitimate, well-established, and legally settled rights of others. We demand that China demonstrate that it is a responsible and trustworthy member of the international community,” the task force said.

It added that the Philippines would continue to act according to international laws.

“The Philippines will not be deterred from exercising our legal rights over our maritime zones, including Ayungin Shoal, which forms part of our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and continental shelf,” the task force said, adding that these rights are guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and 2016 Arbitral Ruling.

Longstanding tensions between Manila and Beijing over the sea have flared in recent months following multiple incidents involving Philippine and Chinese vessels, including two previous collisions.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including waters and islands near the shores of its neighbors, and has ignored an international tribunal ruling that its assertions have no legal basis.

It deploys boats to patrol the busy waterway and has built artificial islands that it has militarized to reinforce its claims. With AFP