US demands Beijing stop ‘provocative and unsafe’ acts in South China Sea

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The US called on China Saturday to stop its “provocative and unsafe conduct” in the disputed South China Sea, after a Chinese coast guard ship recently cut off a Philippine patrol vessel there, causing a near-collision.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller, in a statement two days before President Joe Biden is to host Philippine counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the White House, called images of the incident a reminder of China’s “harassment and intimidation” of Philippine vessels in the contested waterway.

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“We call upon Beijing to desist from its provocative and unsafe conduct,” he said, adding that any attack on Philippine armed forces would trigger a US response.

The near-miss off the Spratly Islands on Sunday was the latest in a long string of incidents between China and the Philippines in the contested waterway.

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, ignoring an international ruling that the assertion has no legal basis.

AFP was one of several media outlets that witnessed the incident after journalists were invited to join two Philippine Coast Guard boats on a six-day patrol of the waters, visiting a dozen islands and reefs.

The Philippine vessels approached Second Thomas Shoal, known in China as Ren’ai Jiao, in the Spratly archipelago.

As one boat, the BRP Malapascua, which was carrying Filipino journalists, neared the shoal, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel more than twice its size sailed into its path.

AFP journalists watched the incident from the other Philippine Coast Guard boat, which was less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) away.

The Malapascua’s commanding officer said the Chinese ship came within 45 meters (50 yards) of his boat and only his quick actions avoided the steel-hulled vessels crashing into each other.

The Chinese foreign ministry said Friday that the Philippine boats had “intruded” without China’s permission and called it a “premeditated and provocative action.”

But Manila hit back, saying that “routine patrols in our own waters can be neither premeditated or provocative” and insisting they will continue to conduct the patrols.

The near-miss came just a day after Marcos hosted Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang for talks in Manila aimed at defusing tensions in the waterway.

Marcos has insisted he will not let China trample on the Philippines’ rights in the sea, and has gravitated toward the United States as he seeks to strengthen defense ties.

This shift has alarmed China, which has accused Washington of trying to drive a wedge between Beijing and Manila.

Marcos has said that with Biden he will discuss the “need to tone down the rhetoric” over the South China Sea, Taiwan and North Korea.

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