(UPDATE) TWO Chinese coast guard vessels collided with a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship and a resupply boat en route to Ayungin Shoal in separate incidents Sunday that further stoked tensions in the already volatile West Philippine Sea.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) reported that the first incident at 6:04 a.m. involved the Unaiza May 2, a chartered boat carrying supplies to Philippine soldiers stationed at Ayungin, and Chinese coast guard vessel 5203.
The “dangerous blocking maneuvers of China Coast Guard vessel 5203 caused it to collide” with the boat about 25 kilometers from the atoll.
China’s foreign ministry, however, said the “slight collision” happened after the resupply boat ignored “multiple warnings and deliberately passed through law enforcement in an unprofessional and dangerous manner.”
In the other incident, the port side of PCG ship 4409 escorting the boat was “bumped” by what the task force described as a “Chinese Maritime Militia vessel.”
China accused the boat of “deliberately” stirring up trouble by reversing in a “premeditated manner” into a Chinese fishing vessel.
No crewmen on Unaiza May 2 and Philippine Coast Guard 4409 were hurt in the incident.
A video released by the Philippine military showed the bow of the Chinese coast guard ship and the stern of the resupply vessel briefly touching.
The Philippine vessel continued on its course. It is not clear if there was any damage.
A second resupply boat was able to reach the grounded BRP Sierra Madre and “successfully resupplied our troops and personnel stationed there,” the task force said.
It said it “condemns in the strongest degree the latest dangerous, irresponsible, and illegal actions of the CCG and the Chinese Maritime Militia done this morning.”
It said the “provocative, irresponsible, and illegal action” of the Chinese coast guard boat had endangered the safety of the crew on the supply boat.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, and has ignored an international ruling that its assertion has no legal basis.
Ayungin, or Second Thomas Shoal, is about 200 kilometers from Palawan and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass, Hainan Island.
China said “responsibility lies entirely with the Philippines” for Sunday’s incidents.
As China moves ever more confidently to assert its claims to sovereignty over the waters, officials and experts have warned of the potential for collisions.
“This is exactly the kind of event that can happen given their dangerous maneuvering,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
Batongbacal said the Chinese coast guard had deliberately hit the Philippine resupply vessel to see how Manila would respond and test the resolve of the Philippines’ longtime ally Washington.
“You don’t accidentally hit another vessel out in the open ocean,” Batongbacal told AFP.
The Philippine Navy deliberately grounded the World War 2-era BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin in 1999 to check China’s advance in the waters.
The troops stationed on the crumbling ship depend on regular supply deliveries for their survival.
The Philippines has outposts on nine reefs and islands in the Spratlys, including Ayungin.
US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson said the United States condemned China’s “latest disruption of a legal Philippine resupply mission” that put “the lives of Filipino service members at risk.”
Manila and Beijing have a long history of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
Tensions flared in August when China Coast Guard vessels used water cannon against a resupply mission to Ayungin, preventing one of the boats from delivering its cargo.
A Chinese ship in April narrowly missed colliding with a much smaller Philippine Coast Guard vessel in the same area.
On Sunday, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri condemned what he described as the latest “abhorrent” actions of the China Coast Guard and Chinese maritime militia against Philippine vessels.
Zubiri called on CCG to “respect human lives” and abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and other international laws governing safe maritime travel.
“Our freedom of navigation in our own exclusive economic zone within our own continental shelf should be recognized and upheld,” Zubiri said in a statement.
The CCG’s action, he said, “put in danger the lives of our brave countrymen who were on a routine resupply mission to our troops in Ayungin Shoal.”
He lauded the PCG and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “for displaying courage and restraint in continuing their resupply missions despite the hostile and treacherous acts of China Coast Guard and their maritime militia.”
“As leader of the Senate, I will make sure that our troops will get sufficient funds under the 2024 national budget to bankroll the much-needed upgrade of their equipment,” Zubiri said.
Sen. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros meanwhile called on the international community to join the Philippines’ condemnation of the incident.
“Our nations should not stop fighting for the rule of law. It is the only way to have a chance at true peace and stability across the region and the world,” Hontiveros said in a statement.
“This latest collision is squarely the China Coast Guard’s fault,” she said.
Hontiveros said the PCG “has every right” to be in the West Philippine Sea and that Chinese vessels have “chased, blocked, and harassed our Philippine Coast Guard daily, 24/7 every single time we conduct our resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre.”
A prominent labor group on Sunday joined the protest against continued Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
The Federation of Free Workers (FFW) said it stands alongside the government in condemning the Chinese actions.
“We cannot merely be passive bystanders or unconcerned observers. It is our responsibility to voice our profound concern and show solidarity with the AFP (Armed Forces in the Philippines) in the face of this provocative behavior,” FFW President Sonny Matula said.
“We call for peaceful resolutions to conflicts in the West Philippine Sea and emphasize the necessity of making a resounding and resolute protest in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA),” Matula said.
WITH AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE