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CHINA ‘ATTACKS’ PHL SHIPS AGAIN, MARINE SCIENTISTS ALSO; U.S., OTHERS FUMED; Washington, US senators reaffirm mutual defense treaty commitment


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MANILA/WASHINGTON – A Philippine civilian boat on a re-supply mission to Filipino soldiers in Ayungin shoal was severely damaged and some of its crew members were injured when two China Coast Guard ships fired water cannons at it in the latest “dangerous” confrontation in the West Philippine Sea.

In another development, several Filipino marine scientists were injured after they were reportedly harassed by a Chinese Navy (CN) helicopter at Sandy Cay in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

The researchers from the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute of Biology and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) traveled to Sandy Cay last week to record its biodiversity and help ensure food security.

A China Navy helicopter reportedly flew low over the coalescing sand bars and the scientists for ten minutes resulting to a downwash that scattered dead corals dumped earlier in the area, causing cuts and scratches on the scientists. (See related stories)

The United States and the Philippines immediately condemned China for its latest ‘dangerous actions in the West Philippine Sea, a territory and an exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, saying the actions by China Coast Guard were in disregard of international law and could destabilize the region further.

Later on Tuesday, a US congressional delegation called on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Malacanang and expressed support for the Philippines amid the latest act of harassment by China in the West Philippine Sea. 

“We share your concern about China’s aggression with regard to many of the issues around the Philippines,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told Marcos.

“We stand with you and we want to continue to stand by you, and with you, and to push that aggression back appropriately,” she added.

Gillibrand assured Marcos of the delegations’ support to the Philippines, which she considered an ally and a friend to the US.

With Gillibrand were Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Senator Roger Marshall,  Senator Mark Kelly, Senator Cynthia Lummis, Senator Michael Bennet, and  Representative Adriano Espaillat. They were accompanied by US Ambassador to Manila MaryKay Carlson and other US officials.

Philippine officials who met the delegation included Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, and Presidential Communications Office Secretary Cheloy Garafil. 

The US, the United Kingdom, the European Union and other security partners have called out previous attempts by Chinese vessels to impede Philippine boats in the West Philippines with aggressive maneuvers and water cannon.

The US State Department, at the same time, reaffirmed its commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the US and the Philippines.

“The United States reaffirms that Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-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,” US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement dated March 23.

The defense pact states that the US and the Philippines would support each other if either of them were to be attacked by an external party.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Embassy in the Philippines also expressed “grave concern” over what it described as China’s “repeated dangerous actions” in the South China Sea.

“Japan stands in solidarity with the PH as confirmed at the (Japan-PH-US) Vice Foreign Ministers’ meeting held in this week,” the embassy said in an X (Twitter) post.

The incident comes ahead of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.’s visit to Washington where he is set to hold a trilateral leaders’ summit with his US and Japanese counterparts on April 11.

According to the White House, Marcos, US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida Fumio will discuss a broad range of areas, including economic and security cooperation, among others.

The Philippines’ National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) slammed the China Coast Guard  for damaging a Filipino supply vessel, the Unaizah May 4,  near the Ayungin Shoal with water cannon and injuring those on board.

Undterred by China’s dangerous actions, the Philippines will continue to act peacefully and responsibly, consistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Award, the NTF-WPS said. 

“The Philippines will not be deterred—by veiled threats or hostility—from exercising our legal rights over our maritime zones, including Ayungin Shoal, which forms part of our EEZ and continental shelf,” it added. 

”We demand that China demonstrate in deeds and not in words that it is a responsible and trustworthy member of the international community,” the NTF-WPS said.

In Washington, the US State Department issued a statement condemning the “dangerous actions” of the Chinese forces against the Philippines.

“The United States stands with its ally the Philippines and condemns the dangerous actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) against lawful Philippine maritime operations in the South China Sea on March 23,” the US State Department said in a press statement released over the weekend.

The State Department Spokesperson said that, “PRC ships’ repeated employment of water cannons and reckless blocking maneuvers resulted in injuries to Filipino service members and significant damage to their resupply vessel, rendering it immobile. 

“The PRC’s actions prevent normal personnel rotations and deprive Filipino service members at Second Thomas Shoal of necessary provisions.  This incident marks only the latest in the PRC’s repeated obstruction of Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation and disruption of supply lines to this longstanding outpost.”

The State Department said it considers China’s actions “destabilizing to the region and show clear disregard for international law.”

“According to an international tribunal’s legally binding decision issued in July 2016, the PRC has no lawful maritime claims to the waters around Second Thomas Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal is a low tide feature clearly 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,” the statement said.

Earlier, the Philippines’ NTF-WPS reported Saturday morning that China Coast Guard vessels, along with Chinese maritime militia vessels, “acted recklessly and dangerously” against the country’s resupply boat Unaizah May 4 (UM4) and its Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) escort vessels.

This ended with two CCG ships water cannoning the UM4, causing severe damage to the boat and injuries to the Filipino crew members onboard.

The NTF-WPS said the Chinese vessels even attempted to obstruct the PCG escort vessels from providing immediate relief and assistance to the disabled UM4 and its crew, but the PCG ships were able to break through and provide medical attention to the injured crew.

To complete the RORE mission, BRP Sierra Madre which serves as the Philippines’ outpost in Ayungin Shoal, deployed rigid-hulled inflatable boats to UM4 to ferry personnel. 

The NTF-WPS said: ”The People’s Republic of China’s latest acts of unprovoked aggression, coercion, and dangerous maneuvers against a legitimate and routine Philippine RoRe mission to Ayungin Shoal, have once again placed at risk, caused severe damage to property, and caused physical harm to Filipinos on board UM4.”

“The actions of the agents of the PRC today in the waters of the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) show to the Filipino people, the region, and the world that the PRC recognizes no reasonable or legal restraint nor limitation upon its actions under international law,” it added. 

American Ambassador MaryKay Carlson expressed the United States’ support for the Philippines following the incident. 

”The PRC’s interference with [the Philippines’] freedom of navigation violates international law and threatens a #FreeAndOpenIndoPacific,” she said on X.

Ironically,  China Coast Guard spokesperson Gan Yu claimed that the Philippines conducted an “irregular resupply mission.”

He said the Philippines sent two PCG ships and one resupply ship ”to intrude into the adjacent waters” of Ayungin Shoal, which China calls Ren’ai Jiao, ”only 18 days after its resupply mission, ”attempting to transport construction materials” to BRP Sierra Madre. 

This prompted Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. to challenge China to put its sovereignty claim to arbitration after Beijing also had warned the Philippines to bear all ”potential consequences” amid its actions in the South China Sea.

‘Kung talagang gusto nila, kung talaga siguro hindi sila natatakot na ihayag sa boung mundo ang kanilang claim, bakit hindi tayo mag-arbitrate sa ilalim ng international law para maliwanag sa lahat kung ano ang karapatan ng kahit sino? Bakit ayaw nila?” Teodoro said.

Teodoro also maintained that it is Beijing that is continuously intruding into the Philippines’ territorial waters.

”Papano natin tsina-challenge ang kanilang bottomline, sila nga ang pumapasok dito sa teritoryo natin eh, ano bang bottomline ‘yun, ‘yan na naman ‘yang bottomline na ‘yan walang bansa sa buong mundo ni isa ang naniniwala diyan kung hindi ito ang paggamit ng dahas upang takutin at payukuin ang Pilipinas sa kanilang ambisyon kung ano man ‘yun,” Teodoro said.