China coastguard blocks Philippines vessels as maritime tension grows


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A vessel from China’s coastguard has blocked two Philippine government ships for hours a short distance from the south-east Asian country’s coast, in a further escalation of tension between the two nations in the disputed South China Sea.

The operation on Saturday night took place just 35 nautical miles from the Philippines’ coastline, and comes as Beijing pushes back against Washington’s high-profile moves this week to bolster Manila, its ally, against China.

The Chinese coastguard ship met a Philippine maritime research vessel and an escort ship from the Philippine coastguard, according to satellite imagery and ship tracking data collected by SeaLight, an open-source research initiative that tracks Chinese maritime activity in the area.

The tracking data showed that the vessels met on the boundary of the nine-dash line, with which Beijing marks its extensive but vague claim over most of the South China Sea.

The two Philippine vessels stopped for more than eight hours after the Chinese coastguard ship blocked their way, and only resumed their journey north-west early on Sunday.

“This really is unprecedented: they intercepted them just as they crossed that nine-dash line claim,” said Ray Powell, SeaLight director.

Neither the Philippines nor China has commented on the incident.

Powell said the Chinese move was probably a reaction to last week’s first ever US-Japan-Philippines summit in Washington, when Joe Biden, Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida voiced concerns about China’s “dangerous and aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea”.

In recent weeks, the US has stepped up warnings to China over its coercive activity in the South China Sea and particularly around Second Thomas Shoal, a reef called Ren’ai Jiao by China and claimed by both Beijing and Manila. The Philippines keeps control over the reef with a rusting former warship grounded there in 1999.

Washington has reiterated several times that the US-Philippines mutual defence treaty “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft — including those of its coast guard — anywhere in the South China Sea”.

On Friday, the US and the Philippines national security advisers joined talks between their defence and foreign secretaries for the first time, in the latest sign of expanding security co-operation.

Beijing has reacted furiously. It summoned diplomats from the US and Japan and accused both countries of engaging in bloc politics and interfering in its internal affairs.

On Thursday China’s foreign ministry accused Marcos of having reneged on a bilateral understanding on the Second Thomas Shoal issue. “[T]he Philippines has abandoned the current administration’s understanding with China on the Ren’ai Jiao issue,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

The Philippine ships blocked on Saturday had earlier left the port for a hydrographic survey of an area some 80 nautical miles north of Scarborough Shoal, another small piece of land disputed between Beijing and Manila. China wrested control of the shoal from the Philippines in 2012.

Both shoals sit inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, giving Manila the sole right to survey and exploit resources under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. A 2016 arbitration tribunal ruling said China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea, including over the two shoals and surrounding waters, were in violation of Unclos.

In March, Chinese coast guard ships fired water cannons at a Philippines vessel headed towards the Second Thomas Shoal in two separate incidents, injuring Filipino soldiers and damaging Manila’s vessels. Marcos in response said the Philippines would implement countermeasures against China, though he did not provide any details.

Beijing has used similar blocking and intimidating tactics on survey and oil exploration vessels from Vietnam and Malaysia, which also have overlapping claims on the South China Sea.

Additional reporting by A. Anantha Lakshmi in Jakarta



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