Chinese coastguard vessels have blocked and used water cannon on two Philippine supply boats heading to a disputed shoal occupied by Filipino marines in the South China Sea, drawing an angry protest from Manila.
The Philippines’ foreign secretary warned on Thursday that its vessels are covered under a mutual defence treaty with the United States.
Teodoro Locsin Jr said no one was hurt in the incident in the disputed waters on Tuesday, but the two supply ships had to abort their mission to provide food supplies to Filipino forces occupying the Second Thomas Shoal, which lies off western Palawan province in the Philippines’ internationally recognised exclusive economic zone.
Locsin said in a tweet that the three Chinese coastguard ships’ actions were illegal and he asked them “to take heed and back off”.
The Philippine government has conveyed to China “our outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident”, Locsin said, adding that “this failure to exercise self-restraint threatens the special relationship between the Philippines and China” that president Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, had worked hard to nurture.
There was no immediate comment from Chinese officials in Manila or Beijing.
The incident is the latest flare-up in the long-simmering territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims. China claims virtually the entire waterway and has transformed seven disputed shoals into missile-protected island bases to cement its claims, ratcheting up tensions and alarming rival claimants and western governments led by the US.
Washington has no claims in the busy waterway but has patrolled the region with its Navy vessels and aircraft to assure its allies, including the Philippines, and ensure freedom of navigation and overflight. China has repeatedly warned the US to stay away from the disputed waters and not meddle in what it says is a regional issue.
President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump have repeatedly assured the Philippines that the US will honour its obligation under the two nations’ mutual defensc treaty if Philippine forces, ships or aircraft come under attack in the long-disputed region.