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CHINA ‘ATTACKS’ OF PHL SHIPS IN WEST PHL SEA ESCALATE; U.S., Japan, others air concern, warn Beijing

By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE

Editor in Chief and Managing Editor

MANILA/WASHINGTON/MELBOURNE – Tension exploded to new heights in West Philippine Sea after China Coast Guard and Chinese maritime militia ships attacked on March 5 Philippine vessels in the area with water cannons and dangerous maneuvers that resulted to collision and injuries to four Filipinos, including the chief of Philippine Coast Guard.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., speaking in Melbourne, Australia, immediately described the  actions by China against Philippine vessels “with great alarm,” prompting the United States, Japan and other allies to warn China, short of possibly invoking the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty. (See related stories.)

“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 Melbourne.

The latest confrontations on the way to Ayungin Shoal, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, in the Spratly Island chain of the West Philippine Sea was described by a Filipino military commander as “the worst” in two years.

The Philippine Coast Guard said China Coast Guard  and militia ships caused two collisions with Philippine boats and water cannoned one of them,

In Washington, the US through the State State Department criticized China for its “provocative actions”, including the use of water cannons against a resupply boat that injured four Filipino service members while they were en route to Ayungin Shoal.

In Manila, US Ambassador MaryKay.Carlson said China’s dangerous maneuvers at the shoal “endangered lives, resulted in injuries, and damaged Philippine Coast Guard vessels in the Philippine exclusive economic zone.”

“The United States stands with the Philippines and proponents of international law in support of a free abs open Indo-Pacific,” Carlson said in a statement on X.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US stands with the Philippines against these acts and is in “discussion” with the government about the latest incident.

“The latest actions, which are just the most recent in a series of provocative actions by the PRC (People’s Republic of China), demonstrate once again a reckless disregard by the PRC for the safety of Filipinos and also for international law,” he said in a briefing on Wednesday (Manila time).

“By impeding the safe operation of Philippine vessels carrying provisions to Filipino service members stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, the PRC interfered in lawful Philippine maritime operations and in Philippine vessels’ exercise of high-seas freedom of navigation,” he added.

The State Department said under the 2016 Arbitral Ruling, China has “no lawful maritime claims to the waters” around Ayungin Shoal as the feature is a low-tide elevation located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.  

“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,” Miller said.

Miller reiterated that the US is committed to the Mutual Defense Treaty, adding that this extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft – including those of its Coast Guard – anywhere in the South China Sea.

Asked whether the use of water cannon and actions that led to the collision constitute an armed attack, Miller said he would not “speculate or get out ahead of any discussions in this regard”.

The State Department statement came a day after the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs summoned Chinese Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Zhou Zhiyong to protest the Chinese Coast Guard’s March 5 maneuvers, blocking, and use of water cannons that damaged Filipino vessels and injured four people.

The US Embassy did not provide specific details on the dates of talks between Manila and Washington DC but said there are regular conversations with their Filipino counterparts “at all levels” and that “these interactions were part of those discussions”.

Throughout the operation, the PCG vessels faced dangerous maneuvers and blocking from Chinese Coast Guard vessels and Chinese Maritime Militia,” Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela said.

“Their reckless and illegal actions led to a collision between MRRV-4407 and China Coast Guard 21555 that resulted to minor structural damage to the PCG vessel,” he added.

Meanwhile, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said in a statement: “The use of water cannons by the CCG vessels shattered the wind shield of Unaizah May 4, causing minor injuries to at least four personnel on board.”

The injured Filipino personnel were treated by the crew of Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel BRP Sindangan.

Other related developments:

1.     Rep. Neptali Gonzales II, chairperson of the House Special Committee on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) called for sufficient funding in the 2025 national budget to strengthen the country’s capacity to protect the WPS. He said Congress had to reallocate P1.23 billion in confidential funds from civilian government agencies to security agencies under the 2024 national budget amid escalating tensions with China in the WPS.

2.     The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said the country’s territorial dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea (WPS) can be solved by rallying support from the international community through continued transparency efforts. At

the PCG WPS Transparency Office in Manila, Commodore Jay Tarriela said the transparency strategy adopted by the government against Chinese aggression has been largely successful in achieving its objectives.

3.     Senator Francis Tolentino said any attempt by China to challenge the unanimously approved Senate Bill No. 2492 or the Philippine Maritime Zones Act is “futile” and would not deter Filipinos from upholding their rights under international law.

4.     Rep. Neptali Gonzales II, chairperson of the House Special Committee on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) called for sufficient funding in the 2025 national budget to strengthen the country’s capacity to protect the WPS. He said Congress had to reallocate P1.23 billion in confidential funds from civilian government agencies to security agencies under the 2024 national budget amid escalating tensions with China in the WPS.

5.     Think-tank Stratbase ADR Institute condemned China’s persistent and increasing aggression in the West Philippine Sea, which was highlighted by its latest attempts to impede Manila’s rotation and reprovisioning (RORE) mission for the BRP Sierra Madre (LS-57) contingent.

In a statement, Stratbase ADR Institute president Dindo Manhit said these actions show China’s blatant disregard for the Philippines’ national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

President Marcos said he views China’s provocative acts in the Philippine waters “in the most serious way.”

However, he admitted that China’s recent actions could not prompt him to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States.

The Philippine Coast Guard’s BRP Sindangan (MRRV-4407) on Tuesday collided with CCG vessel 21555 due to the latter’s “dangerous maneuvers and blocking,” causing minor structural damage to the Filipino ship.

Another CCG vessel also attacked Unaizah May 4, one of the two resupply boats chartered by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, with water cannons that destroyed its windshield and injured four of its crew.

Marcos also reacted to the reported presence of Chinese research vessels in the Philippine Rise (formerly known as Benham Rise), saying it is a clear intrusion into the Philippine maritime territory and it is “of great concern.”

“However, there is a suspicion that they are not only research vessels so, again, this is a bit of an escalation of the tension that is present in the West Philippines Sea,” he said.

During his intervention at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Australia Special Summit Leaders’ Retreat in Melbourne, Marcos maintained that the Philippine government “will not yield an inch of [the Philippines’] sovereignty,” adding that it will continue to defend the country’s rights based on international law.

Marcos also called on the ASEAN and other nations to show toughness while remaining committed to international law amid China’s aggressive acts in the South China Sea that infringe on the sovereign rights of other nations in the region.

“It, therefore, behooves the Philippines, ASEAN, and Australia, and all like-minded states to exercise the boldness and sense of responsibility to remain committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes and to maintain respect for the rules-based international order and multilateralism, especially in the face of deliberate efforts by others to denigrate, deny and even violate international law,” he added.

Marcos said it remains the responsibility of each state to promote and protect the rule of international law “as much as any other state facing wanton military might.”

He stressed that “peace is both a global public good and one of humanity’s highest values that no one state should put at risk, for whatever gain or motive.”

The President also thanked Australia and other nations for promoting a rules-based international order grounded on international law. A ranking Philippine security official, meanwhile, said China’s aggressive actions against the Philippines’ resupply missions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) negates its own call for dialogue and de-escalation of tensions in the area.

In a statement, National Task Force for the WPS spokesperson Jonathan Malaya also slammed claims made by a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) spokesperson, referring to an alleged “promise” of the Philippines regarding the removal of the BRP Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal and a purported “temporary special arrangement for the entry of food and supplies to LS-57.”

Malaya said such claims has not been supported by any shred of credible evidence and has been debunked a million times.

“In Filipino, we refer to this as ‘sirang plaka’ (broken record ) Paulit-ulit, wala namang naniniwala sa kanila (They repeatedly say the same thing despite the fact that no one believes them),” he added.

Malaya also disputed the CCG’s claims that its actions at sea are “reasonable, legal and professional” and that the PCG deliberately crashed into a Chinese vessel causing slight damage.

“This is standard Chinese disinformation and fake news. As we can see from footage of the incidents yesterday coming from third-party and independent members of the domestic and international media, the CCG conducted provocative, unilateral,  illegal, and unprofessional acts that are unbecoming of Coast Guard officers and are a stain on the coast guard uniform we proudly wear. We hold the CCG responsible for their actions,” he added.

Malaya also disputed the CCG’s claims that the Philippines is “untrustful, deliberately stirring up trouble, and maliciously inciting hype.”

“Let me ask them this question: Who is executing the blocking and dangerous maneuvers? Who is deploying water cannons against unarmed ships? Is hurting or causing injury to Filipino personnel professional and legitimate? Who is deliberately blocking our ships in waters where the Philippines exercises sovereign rights and jurisdiction under international law? Is it the Philippines? No, it is China,” he added.Malaya also maintained the Philippines continues to act peacefully and responsibly, consistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the legally binding 2016 Arbitral Award