The United States spoke up Friday in support of the Philippines after Chinese coastguard vessels were accused of harassing Philippine resupply ships with water cannon in the South China Sea.
The incident happened on Tuesday near the Second Thomas Shoal which Manila calls Ayungin Shoal.
On Thursday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. filed a strong protest to the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing, to which China responded by saying that the Philippine boats “trespassed” into China’s waters without permission.
The diplomatic tension has now escalated further with U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price issuing a statement condemning China’s actions.
“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability, escalates regional tensions, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order,” the statement reads.
Price added that the U.S. “reaffirms that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S. Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing late on Thursday that “on the evening of Nov. 16, two Philippine supply boats trespassed into waters near Ren’ai Jiao (Second Thomas Shoal) of China’s Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands) without China’s consent.”
“Chinese coast guard vessels performed official duties in accordance with law and upheld China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order,” Zhao said.
The Philippine military said Chinese coastguard vessels blocked and fired water cannons on two Philippine supply ships transporting food to military personnel stationed on the shoal.
Since 1999, the Philippines has maintained a Marine detachment there aboard a World War II-era warship, the BRP Sierra Madre, deliberately grounded on the reef to serve as an outpost.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Thursday issued a statement saying “the acts of the Chinese coast guard vessels are illegal.”
“They must heed and back off,” he said.
According to the Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian “the sea area of Ren’ai Jiao is generally tranquil” after the incident.
“China and the Philippines are in communication on this,” he added.
Meanwhile the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a Beijing-based Chinese thinktank, questioned the Philippine supply mission.
“As far as we know, normal supplies are tolerable, otherwise the Philippine marines aboard the warship on the beach could not hold on for so many years,” the SCSPI said on Twitter.
“However, any attempt to fortify facilities on this feature is another matter. Waiting for the details,” it said.
The Second Thomas Shoal is a submerged atoll in the Spratly Islands. Manila calls it part of the Kalayaan Island group and “an integral part of the Philippines.”
A 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal invalidated Beijing’s sweeping “nine-dash line” claim to the South China Sea and affirmed Manila’s sovereign rights to a 200-nautical mile EEZ in the sea.
The strongly-worded protest by the Locsin over the event has received support among the Philippine public and officials, local media reported.
Vice President Leni Robredo who is running for president in the 2022 election said in a statement: “The Filipinos cannot be treated like this. Our arbitral victory should be the support for us to continue protecting what is ours.”
Another presidential candidate, former boxing champion Senator Manny Pacquiao, said: “We should be firm to defend our territorial rights.”
Senator Risa Hontiveros, an opposition leader who has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy towards China, said she “vehemently” condemns the incident and supports the foreign secretary’s move “to protest this incessant bullying” by the Chinese side.
“This is an outright and unacceptable violation of our sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” the senator said.
The Philippine fishermen group Pamalakaya, meanwhile, called the Nov. 16 incident “an awful reminiscence” of when Chinese vessels drove away Filipino fishermen from entering the Scarborough Shoal with the use of water cannon in 2014.
“This is all but indication of a continuing presence and aggression of Chinese forces in our waters that needs to be seriously addressed (by) diplomatic means,” Pamalakaya said, calling on the Duterte government to “immediately lodge a strong protest against this violation of our national sovereignty.”
BenarNews journalist Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.
Copyright © 1998-2020, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.:US accuses China of threatening peace after water cannon used on Philippine ships