Philippines protests after Chinese ship nearly collides with Philippine vessel

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A Chinese coast guard ship came within a meter (3 feet) of colliding with a Philippine patrol ship it was trying to block in the South China Sea, in an alarming incident that intensified fears that territorial disputes in the waters could spark a larger crisis.

The Philippines on Friday strongly condemned the Chinese ship’s maneuvers near Second Thomas Shoal, which the Asian neighbors both claim and has been the scene of frequent confrontations.

One other Philippine coast guard vessel was blocked and surrounded by Chinese coast guard and militia ships in the incident, which dragged on for about eight hours on Wednesday. A major clash in the disputed waters could potentially involve the United States, which has vowed to defend the Philippines, its treaty ally, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under armed attack.

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Two smaller supply boats being escorted by the Philippine coast guard in the contested waters managed to breach the Chinese blockade and delivered food and other supplies to a Filipino marine outpost at the shoal.

“We condemn the behavior of the Chinese coast guard vessel. They have been violating international law, particularly the collision regulations,” Philippine coast guard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said at a briefing Friday.

A collision was averted when one of the two Philippine coast guard vessels, the BRP Sindangan, rapidly reversed its engine to avoid slamming into the Chinese coast guard ship that crossed its bow at a distance of only a meter, Tarriela said.

It’s “the closest dangerous maneuver” by any Chinese coast guard ship against a Philippine patrol ship, he said.

The incident was witnessed by several journalists, including from The Associated Press, who were invited by the Philippine coast guard to join the voyage as part of a strategy aimed at exposing Chinese aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

A small contingent of Filipino marines and navy personnel has stood guard for years on a long-marooned but still commissioned warship, the BRP Sierra Madre, at the shoal. China has surrounded it with its coast guard ships and militia vessels to prevent the Philippines from delivering construction materials that Beijing fears could be used to reinforce the Sierra Madre and turn it into a permanent territorial outpost.

Wednesday’s hostilities began at dawn when a Chinese coast guard ship closely tailed the Philippine vessels enroute to Second Thomas Shoal. A swarm of Chinese coast guard and militia ships, including at least one navy warship, later emerged and formed a blockade in the high seas off the shoal.

A Chinese coast guard radio operator asserted repeatedly to the BRP Sindangan that “China has indisputable sovereignty” over Second Thomas Shoal and outlying waters. “To avoid miscalculations, leave and keep out,” the Chinese radio operator warned.

Filipino coast guard personnel responded by asserting Philippine rights to the area and said they would proceed with the delivery of the supplies.

The Chinese coast guard said in a statement Wednesday night that the Philippine vessels entered the waters “without permission from the Chinese government” and that “China firmly opposes the Philippines illegally transporting building materials to the ‘grounded’ military boat.

It said it gave a stern warning to the Philippine vessels and monitored them throughout the process.

It was the latest flare-up in long-simmering territorial disputes in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest trade routes.

The conflicts, which involve China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, are regarded as a potential flashpoint and have become a delicate fault line in US-China rivalry in the region.

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