US rebukes China for ‘dangerous and destabilizing conduct’ after sea ruckus

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THE BRP SIERRA MADRE, a marooned transport ship which Philippine Marines live in as a military outpost, is pictured in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. — REUTERS

THE UNITED STATES at the weekend condemned China’s “dangerous actions” after its coast guard again fired water cannons at a wooden boat used by the Philippines in a resupply mission for Filipino troops at a remote outpost in the South China Sea.

“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,” US Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller said in a state posted on its website.

“The People’s Republic of China’s actions are destabilizing to the region and show clear disregard for international law,” he added.

Tensions between the Philippines and China have worsened in the past year as the Chinese Coast Guard continues to block Philippine boats trying to deliver food and other supplies to BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II- era ship that Manila grounded at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to assert its sovereignty.

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

Japan through its embassy in Manila “reiterates its grave concern on the repeated dangerous actions by China Coast Guard vessels in the South China Sea which resulted in Filipino injuries.”

The envoys of Canada, Australia, Germany and the European Union also expressed concern over the Chinese ships’ actions that they said were “dangerous.”

China’s Coast Guard accused the Philippines of transporting construction materials to the “illegally grounded” warship.

“It is a deliberate and provocative move that infringes upon China’s sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests and undermines peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Gan Yu, spokesperson for the Chinese Coast Guard, said in a statement.

“We warn the Philippines that playing with fire is an invitation of disgrace, and the China Coast Guard is ready at all times to defend the country’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.”

Saturday’s incident comes days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his visit to Manila that the US stands by its “ironclad” commitments to defend the Philippines against an armed attack in the South China Sea.

“These waterways are critical to the Philippines, to its security, to its economy, but they’re also critical to the interests of the region, the United States and the world,” he said at a joint press conference in Manila with his Philippine counterpart.

In a statement at the weekend, a Philippine task force handling South China Sea disputes said the water cannon had injured Filipinos on board the Unaizah May 4 civilian supply boat.

It added the actions of the Chinese Coast Guard “belie (China’s) hollow claims to peace, dialogue and adherence to international law.”

The same Philippine boat had been damaged by a Chinese water cannon during a similar mission early this month. Four coast guard officers were injured in the March 5 incident, the council said.

Before Saturday’s water cannon incident, the Chinese Coast Guard vessel BN21551 had used “dangerous maneuvers” including crossing the bow of the Philippine boat and a “reverse blocking maneuver… causing a near collision.”

To complete the Philippine resupply mission, BRP Sierra Madre deployed rigid inflatable boats to Unaizah Mae 4 “to ferry personnel to be rotated in,” the task force said.

The Chinese coast guard then placed a floating barrier at the northwestern entrance of the lagoon of Second Thomas Shoal to block the mission, it added.

DIPLOMATIC COSTMr. Miller said the US “reaffirms that Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippine 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.”

China continues to block Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation, he added.

He cited the 2016 ruling by a United Nations (UN)-backed tribunal based in the Hague in 2016 voiding China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

“According to [the] 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 that Second Thomas Shoal is a low tide feature clearly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone,” Mr. Miller said.

The 2016 arbitral decision is final and legally binding on China and the Philippines, he added, citing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. “The United States calls upon the PRC to abide by the ruling and desist from its dangerous and destabilizing conduct,” he said.

The Philippines should step up efforts with allies to keep China’s territorial advances in the South China Sea at bay, political analysts said, as Beijing warned Manila that it would not hesitate to adopt stronger measures.

“Maritime security and [diplomatic] cost imposition for the People’s Republic of China’ aggression should be top issues for the trilateral US-Japan-Philippines leaders’ summit in Washington DC,” Raymond M. Powell, a fellow at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, said in an X message. “President Marcos should be appreciative of the support he’s received so far but should not be timid about approaching his counterparts with additional requests,” he added.

The three nations could champion a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Chinese Coast Guard’s actions, he said. “The resolution would be vetoed of course by China and Russia, but it would force the other countries on the Security Council to take a stand.”

Mr. Powell said Beijing seeks to paint the Philippines into a corner by suggesting it is just a pawn in the United States’ great power competition with China.

“This papers over Manila’s very real security concerns and pretends they are just America’s convenient excuse to enlist the Philippines to its side,” he said. “The fact is that if America left the western Pacific altogether, the Philippines would face the same problems, but now without a powerful treaty ally.”

“If the Philippines insists on going its own way, China will continue to adopt resolute measures to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said late Saturday. “The Philippines should be prepared to bear all potential consequences.” — Norman P. Aquino, Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and John Victor D. Ordoñez