The Philippines accused China of firing water cannons on three Filipino vessels on December 8 in an attempt to obstruct their way in what has come as yet another round of confrontation between the two neighbors.
The attack, which has been labeled as the most severe and aggressive this year, happened when the Philippines warships were on their way to bring supplies to Filipino fishers near Scarborough (Bajo de Masinloc, Panatag) Shoal off Zambales.
A video of the attack was also subsequently released.
According to Philippine officials, the Philippine Fisheries Bureau’s ships visited the rich but remote Scarborough Shoal to deliver humanitarian relief, primarily free gasoline and Christmas grocery packs, to impoverished Filipino fishermen operating roughly thirty boats.
The Philippine government ships were stated to be approaching from a distance of 1.6 to 2 miles (2.6 to 3.5 kilometers) when the Chinese coast guard and its supporting ships engaged in dangerously aggressive behavior, which included the firing of water cannons at least eight times.
They also said that the Chinese Coast Guard had deployed people on small motorboats to drive away Filipino fishermen who were waiting for the delivery of food and gasoline at the entrance to the enormous fishing lagoon of Scarborough Shoal, as well as had erected a floating barrier there.
China Coast Guard blasted water cannon toward a 🇵🇭 Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels near Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal this morning (Dec. 9). The water cannons were used at least 8 times pic.twitter.com/IOmamQWgRa
— Frances Mangosing 🇵🇭 (@FMangosingINQ) December 9, 2023
The attack caused “significant damage” to one of the three Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic (BFA) Resources ships’ navigation and communication systems, according to Filipino officials.
They said, without providing any details, that the Chinese coast guard ships were accompanied by suspected militia vessels that were using a long-range acoustic technology that could cause hearing impairments, leading to “severe temporary discomfort and incapacitation to some Filipino crew.”
The Scarborough Shoal, named for a British ship that ran aground on the atoll some three centuries ago, is one of Asia’s most disputed marine features and a hotspot for diplomatic spats over fishing rights and sovereignty. Since China claims almost the entire South China Sea, this shoal also remains disputed between Beijing and Manila.
Since the shoal is located in the center of the South China Sea, close to shipping routes that handle an estimated $3.4 trillion in yearly commerce, it is strategically significant to Beijing. In fact, there are apprehensions that China may eventually construct a man-made island there.
“China tells Philippines not to cause trouble in South China Sea, a day after Manila cut Beijing’s floating barrier put in place by Beijing to restrict fishing activities in the disputed Scarborough Shoal” 🙄https://t.co/sY4k1zvcBs
— Sana Hashmi | 胡莎娜 (@sanahashmi1) September 26, 2023
In fact, The Philippines discovered a 300-metre-long ball-buoy barrier policed by China’s coastguard near the disputed shoal, which China essentially holds. The Philippines Coastguard undertook a special operation to remove the barrier.
Having said that, The Philippines and its treaty ally, the United States, separately condemned the high-seas assault. “To prevent the distribution of humanitarian support is not only illegal but also inhumane,” the Philippine government task force said.
In a post on the social networking platform X, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Mary Kay Carlson stated that China’s actions “violate international law and endangers lives and livelihoods.” She declared that the United States supported an open and free Indo-Pacific by standing with the Philippines.
We condemn PRC's aggressive, illegal actions against 🇵🇭 BFAR vessels lawfully operating in the 🇵🇭 EEZ. This PRC behavior violates international law and endangers lives and livelihoods. We stand with our Philippine #FriendsPartnersAllies in support of a #FreeAndOpenIndoPacific.
— Ambassador MaryKay L. Carlson (@USAmbPH) December 9, 2023
This is the most recent escalation of the long-running territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, an Asian flashpoint that has put China and the United States on a collision path.
China-Filipino Tensions Refuse To Abate
This year has seen an especially violent territorial confrontation between China and the Philippines over several contested offshore locations, such as the Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoals.
The latest episode is not the first time that China has used water cannons to attack vessels belonging to the Philippines. In November, Manila accused Chinese ships of resupplying Philippine vessels on another disputed territory, the Second Thomas Shoal, and of firing water cannons and engaging in “dangerous maneuvers” near them.
At the time, The Philippines further asserted that inflatable boats belonging to the Chinese Coast Guard were harassing two Philippine boats in a “reckless” and “dangerous” manner.
Later that same month, two Chinese People’s Liberation Army – Air Force (PLA-AF) fighter jets were observed closely circling a Philippine aircraft deployed as part of the joint bilateral maritime patrol with Australia in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines says a Chinese coast guard vessel endangered the lives of crew members on a resupply ship during a collision in the South China Sea. pic.twitter.com/g7tZW6JJF8
— TaiwanPlus News (@taiwanplusnews) October 22, 2023
In October, The Philippines accused Chinese coastguard warships of “intentionally” colliding with their vessels while they were on a resupply operation around the Second Thomas Shoal.
China, however, refuted the accusation and asserted that the Philippine warships had “bumped dangerously” with the coast guard and “Chinese fishing vessels” that were fishing nearby. Since then, several reports of instances similar to that have surfaced.
The Chinese Coast Guard has also allegedly employed military-grade lasers in high seas confrontations off disputed shoals, temporarily blinding Filipino crew members in the process. They have also engaged in risky blocking and shadowing techniques, one of which resulted in a small collision.
In the meantime, the Philippines is stepping up its efforts to thwart what it sees as China’s “aggressive activities” in the South China Sea. The region has become a hotspot for tensions between China and the United States regarding naval operations.