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The Philippines and the US have accused China of illegally targeting two Philippine supply ships in the South China Sea with water cannon, in a further escalation of Beijing’s pressure campaign around a Philippine-occupied shoal in the disputed waters.
A Chinese coast guard ship blocked and water cannoned the second of two boats chartered by the Philippine military to resupply its troops at a military outpost, the Philippine armed forces and Philippine coast guard said in statements on Sunday morning.
The incident at the Second Thomas Shoal sandbank on Saturday prevented the boat from unloading supplies of food, water and fuel and was “in wanton disregard of the safety of the people on board and in violation of international law”, the Philippine military said.
The US State Department said China had “no lawful claim to the maritime area around Second Thomas Shoal, which is located well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone”.
An armed attack on Philippine public vessels, aircraft and armed forces including its coast guard in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defence commitments under its military alliance with Manila, it warned.
China’s coast guard said it had “taken necessary control measures” after two supply ships and two coast guard vessels from the Philippines “illegally trespassed” into waters around the shoal. It claimed that the Philippine ships had carried “illegal building materials”.
It is the latest in a string of stand-offs in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines refers to as Ayungin and China calls Ren’ai Jiao. While Beijing claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, its assertion clashes with claims and control of parts of the sea by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Indonesia.
The incident, which Manila documented with photos and drone footage, comes just 10 days before China is due to start another round of negotiations with rival claimants on a code of conduct in the disputed waters — an effort that has remained fruitless since it began in 2002.
Second Thomas Shoal is one of a series of flashpoints where Chinese coast guard, maritime surveillance ships and maritime militia ships have stepped up harassment of vessels from rival claimants over the past two years.
The Philippine military has a small group of soldiers at the shoal stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre, a second world war-era former US warship which it ran aground on purpose in 1999.
In 2016 an arbitration tribunal ruled China’s South China Sea claim illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but Beijing has rejected the award and continues to ignore it.
In February, Manila said a Chinese coast guard ship temporarily blinded crew members of a Philippine coast guard vessel near the shoal by directing its laser at it. In April, the Philippine coast guard complained about dangerous manoeuvres by a Chinese coast guard vessel, again in the vicinity of the sandbank.
“China is crossing the line and will not stop until it forces [the Philippines] out of Ayungin [Second Thomas] Shoal,” Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, wrote on Twitter.
“If it succeeds here, it will then move on to the next target, and the next, until [the Philippines] is completely expelled from its own [exclusive economic zone]. Then it will move against the other countries.”