Three Chinese Coast Guard vessels reportedly blocked and hit with water cannons two Philippine supply boats that were en route to Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Thursday strongly condemned the incident.
“Fortunately, no one was hurt. But our boats had to abort the resupply mission,” Locsin said in a statement, adding the Philippines has formally filed a protest over the incident.
He said the Philippines has “sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over the area as its exclusive economic zone.
Secretary Hermogenes Esperon Jr., national security adviser and chair of the National Task Force for the WPS, said two wooden-hulled boats were on their way to bring food and other supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre when they encountered the China Coast Guard vessels.
The Sierra Madre is a landing ship that was intentionally ran aground in Ayungin in 1999. It is still a commissioned Navy ship and serves as an outpost for Philippine troops at the shoal, located within the country’s exclusive economic zone off Palawan.
Last Tuesday, one China Coast Guard vessel blocked the entrance to the shoal while two other ships fired their water cannons on the Philippine resupply boats, a military official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the boats were also carrying some persons who were supposed to help repair the already-worn down Sierra Madre.
Locsin described the incident as a “failure” on the part of the Chinese Coast Guard in exercising self-restraint.
“China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off,” he said.
“I have conveyed in the strongest terms to H.E. Huang Xillian, Ambassador of China and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, our outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident,” Locsin added.
He also reminded China that a public vessel is “covered” by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty,” forged in 1951. The agreement states that both nations shall aid each other when attacked by a foreign party.
Malacañang, meanwhile, vowed that it would continue to assert the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea in the light of the incident.
“We will continue to assert our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over our territory,” said Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, who is also acting presidential spokesperson.
The latest incident is just one in a series of China’s incursions on the Philippine waters.
Beijing coast guard ships similarly blocked Filipino vessels delivering food and supplies to Ayungin troops in September 2019.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte came to office, the Philippines has filed 211 diplomatic notes against China over its aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
Geo-political experts say China maintains a militaristic posture to assert its claim of sovereignty in the resource-rich waterway, where Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia also have overlapping claims.
Beijing has cited the nine-dash line doctrine as the basis of its claim, although it has been invalidated by The Hague-based arbitration court in its 2016 award to the Philippine government.
The boats were still about eight miles from BRP Sierra Madre when they encountered the Chinese Coast Guard on Tuesday night, the official added.
The water bombardment on the Unaiza Mae 1 and Unaiza Mae 3 lasted for about an hour and damaged the outrigger of one of the boats, Esperon said.
That prompted the boats to return to mainland Palawan and both made it there safely, despite the damage, he said.
Esperon said the resupply mission to the Sierra Madre will be continued at a later date.
Vessels of the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources have been placed on standby to support resupply missions and enforce fisheries laws in Ayungin, he said.
“We will continue the resupply and we do not have to ask the permission of anybody because that is within our territory.”
Esperon disclosed that the number of Chinese maritime militia vessels in some Philippine-occupied features of the West Philippine Sea were observed to have increased.
In Ayungin alone, about 19 such vessels were monitored one week before Tuesday’s harassment, he said.
Around Pag-Asa Island, the largest Philippine-occupied feature, a “record number” of 45 Chinese maritime militia vessels were monitored last week, Esperon said.
Previously, only two such vessels were regularly monitored in Ayungin and 20 around Pag-Asa, he said.
“There are too many,” Esperon said of vessels around Pag-Asa.
Meanwhile, presidential candidate Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso said, if elected, he shall vigorously push the territorial rights of the country at WPS.
“We will be fearless in fighting for what is ours. We will insist on The Hague Ruling. But at the same time, as being fearless, we are going to be fair with our discussion and management of the situation on both sides,” Domagoso said.
with John Roson