MANILA: As a US Navy surveillance plane flew in circles, keeping a close watch, dozens of Chinese coast guard and accompanying ships chased and encircled Philippine vessels in the latest confrontation in one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the South China Sea.
At the height of Friday’s four-hour faceoff in the high seas, a Chinese coast guard ship blasted a water cannon toward a Philippine motorboat delivering food and other supplies to Filipino forces on a marooned, rusting warship that serves as the country’s fragile territorial outpost at Second Thomas Shoal.
China has steadfastly stood by its claim to virtually the entire strategic waterway, clashing with its smaller neighbors and drawing in the US, Manila’s treaty ally and China’s main rival in the Asia-Pacific region.
Washington and its allies have deployed navy ships and fighter aircraft to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, build up deterrence and reassure allies like the Philippines.
There are fears that the recurring confrontations at Second Thomas Shoal, which lies within the UN-sanctioned Philippine exclusive economic zone but is claimed by China and surrounded by its flotilla, could ignite an armed conflict pitting the US against China.
Philippine officials said on Saturday they would never take any step that could ignite a larger conflict but would not be deterred in defending the country’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea.
Despite the Chinese blockades and coercive maneuvers, the Philippine contingent managed to deliver supplies to the handful of Filipino marines aboard the BRP Sierra Madre and left without incident.
The slightly listing Philippine warship, donated by the US, has been crumbling with age but is still actively commissioned, meaning an armed attack would be considered by Manila as an act of war.
Journalists who were invited on board three Philippine coast guard ships securing two supply boats witnessed the dangerous cat-and-mouse maneuvers in rough waves.
It’s part of a shame campaign Philippine officials said they would press on to expose China’s growing aggression in one of the world’s most important trade routes.