In a recent incident within the contested South China Sea, Beijing and Manila have exchanged accusations following two collisions between Chinese vessels and Philippine boats engaged in a crucial resupply mission to Filipino troops stationed on a remote outpost near Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
The Philippines’ government task force pointed fingers at China, asserting that “dangerous blocking maneuvers of China Coast Guard vessel 5203 caused it to collide with the Armed Forces of the Philippines-contracted indigenous resupply boat.” This collision occurred approximately 25 kilometers from Second Thomas Shoal. China, however, defended itself, labeling it a “slight collision” resulting from the resupply boat’s disregard for “multiple warnings” and a “deliberate passage through law enforcement in an unprofessional and dangerous manner.”
In a separate incident during the same resupply mission, a Philippine coastguard vessel escorting the convoy encountered a collision with what was described by the Philippine task force as a “Chinese Maritime Militia vessel.” Conversely, China argued that the Philippine boat had deliberately reversed into a Chinese fishing vessel in a “premeditated manner.”
A video released by the Philippine military captured the moment of contact between the Chinese coastguard ship and the resupply vessel, after which the Philippine vessel continued its course, with unclear reports of damage. Fortunately, a second resupply boat managed to reach the grounded BRP Sierra Madre and effectively replenish the troops stationed there.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea strongly condemned these actions, describing them as “dangerous, irresponsible, and illegal.” They emphasized that the safety of the resupply boat’s crew had been put at risk due to the provocative behavior of the Chinese coastguard.
The backdrop to these events is China’s sweeping claim over almost the entire South China Sea, a vital trade route, in defiance of an international ruling that deemed this assertion baseless. The location of the incidents, Second Thomas Shoal, is situated approximately 200 kilometers from the Philippine island of Palawan and well over 1,000 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass, Hainan island.
China, for its part, shifted responsibility onto the Philippines for the incidents. As tensions continue to mount in the South China Sea due to China’s increasing assertiveness, experts have cautioned that such collisions were foreseeable. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, argued that the Chinese coastguard intentionally collided with the Philippine resupply vessel to test Manila’s response and evaluate the resolve of its long-standing ally, the United States.
The Philippines’ deliberate grounding of the World War II-era BRP Sierra Madre on the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 was aimed at impeding China’s territorial expansion in the area. The troops stationed on this aging ship depend on regular supply deliveries for their survival.
This recent incident is not isolated, as maritime disputes have persisted between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea. In August, tensions flared when China Coast Guard vessels used water cannons against a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal. Furthermore, a near-collision between a Chinese ship and a smaller Philippine Coast Guard vessel occurred in the same region in April.
The United States has weighed in on the matter, with Ambassador MaryKay Carlson condemning China’s actions, characterizing them as a “disruption of a legal Philippine resupply mission” that endangered the lives of Filipino service members.