Philippines, China trade accusations over South China Sea encounter

April 7, 2024 - 9:49 AM
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A Chinese coastguard vessel approaches a Filipino fishing vessel in the South China Sea on April 4, 2024, in a handout photo by the Philippine Coast Guard that was released on April 6, 2024. (Handout via Reuters)

The Philippines and China traded accusations on Saturday over an encounter in disputed waters of the South China Sea, in an escalating row over a key waterway.

Manila said two Chinese coast guard vessels “harassed” Filipino fishing vessels within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, while Beijing said its vessels responded appropriately to illegal activities.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said China’s claims had no legal basis.

Beijing and Manila have been playing cat-and-mouse around the uninhabited Second Thomas Shoal in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone when the Philippines deploys resupply missions for Filipino soldiers living aboard an ageing warship deliberately run aground in 1999 to protect Manila’s maritime claims.

The Philippines will join defence forces of the U.S., Japan and Australia on Sunday in maritime exercises they said aim to support a free and open Indo-Pacific, as China grows more assertive in its maritime claims.

The disputed shoal is part of what are known internationally as the Spratly Islands. China’s coast guard said on Saturday that a number of ships belonging to the Philippines had “illegally” entered waters near a reef in the Nansha Islands that Beijing has sovereignty over.

Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Jay Tarriela posted on X that China’s vessels “went as far as pretending to man their water cannons and threatening the Filipino fishermen” in the Iroquois reef on Thursday.

Chinese coast guard spokesperson Gan Yu said in a statement that its operation was “professional and in accordance with standards”. He said the Philippine vessels were government ships using the guise of “fishing protection” to undermine stability in the South China Sea.

— Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in Manila and Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Editing by Sam Holmes and William Mallard