Tensions over the South China Sea escalated Monday with China filing a diplomatic complaint, the Philippines summoning Beijing’s ambassador, and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordering a probe a day after vessels from both nations collided in the disputed waters.
A China Coast Guard vessel collided with a Philippines-contracted resupply boat early morning Sunday. Two hours later, Manila said a Chinese maritime militia boat ran into a Philippine coast guard ship during the same operation to deliver supplies to an outpost in Second Thomas Shoal.
The “dangerous, illegal, and reckless maneuvers” by Chinese ships caused damage to Philippine vessels “within our exclusive economic zone and is being taken seriously at the highest level of government,” according to a statement issued by Marcos’s office.
In a briefing after meeting with Marcos, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said the incidents showed China’s “egregious violation of international law and an escalation of their expansionist and aggressive action.”
“The country and the world must condemn the illegal and oppressive actions by the Chinese government that violate any norm in the international law,” Teodoro said.
Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesperson Teresita Daza said Manila has summoned the Chinese envoy as the government makes “full use of diplomatic processes and exercising all possible actions to us.”
A senior diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Manila met with a Philippine foreign ministry official and expressed strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Philippine vessels’ incursion, according to a statement from the embassy. The diplomat urged the Philippines to stop its “provocations” at sea and “smearing” campaign, and tow away its stranded vessel as soon as possible.
The vessel to be resupplied — the BRP Sierra Madre — is a World War II-era ship that was placed in Second Thomas Shoal by the Philippines in 1999 in response to China’s occupation of nearby Mischief Reef four years prior. China, however, has repeatedly urged the Philippines to remove the ship that it said was “illegally” and “deliberately” ran aground at the shoal. Beijing also considers the shoal, which it calls Ren’ai Jiao, as part of its territory.
A social media account linked to the People’s Liberation Army accused the Philippines of misleading the world and providing a “window” for some forces to intervene in the South China Sea, a veiled reference to the U.S.
Sunday’s encounter follows Philippine efforts to push back against a growing number of incursions as Beijing asserts its claim to nearly all of a key waterway that’s resource-rich and vital to global trade. China said the collisions took place after the Philippine boats ignored warnings and approached Chinese vessels in an unsafe manner.
“The Philippines will never be deterred by the provocative actions of China,” National Security Council spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said, adding the Southeast Asian nation will continue “to repair, maintain and sustain our troops in BRP Sierra Madre.”
The U.S. said the incident represented “dangerous and unlawful actions” on the part of China as Japan also expressed support for the Philippines.
The ships “violated international law by intentionally interfering with the Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation,” the US State Department said in a statement on Sunday. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a briefing on Monday that the U.S. statement “is an attempt to endorse the Philippines’ act of infringement and provocation.”
In addition to stepping up public exposure of such incidents, the Philippines and its treaty ally, the U.S., have moved to expand defense cooperation, inflaming tensions between the two superpowers. But with the U.S. already preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and now a second conflict between Israel and Hamas, observers say China may see an opportunity to test America’s resolve in the Indo-Pacific region.
Asked whether the collision would prompt the Philippines to invoke the country’s longstanding treaty with the U.S. that would require the latter to come to the Southeast Asian nation’s defense, Manila’s foreign affairs official Daza said it was “something that needs to be studied.”
“I don’t rule out that they are taking advantage of a distracted U.S.,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program chief at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “I expect this will escalate in the coming days and weeks.”