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Philippines voices anger over latest confrontations with Beijing at sea

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine military chief said Monday he was with Filipino forces aboard a supply boat when it was blasted with a water cannon, surrounded and bumped by Chinese coast guard ships over the weekend in the disputed South China Sea.

General Romeo Brawner Jr told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that China was escalating its aggression in the contested waters but said it would not deter Filipino forces from defending the Philippines’ territorial interests in the busy waterway.

More than 100 Chinese government and suspected militia ships have swarmed the high seas around the contested Second Thomas Shoal, where a long-marooned Philippine navy ship that Brawner visited has stood for decades. He said the swarm of Chinese ships was much bigger than in previous months.

“It’s pure aggression,” Brawner said of China’s high-seas manoeuvers. “I witnessed how many times the big Chinese coast guard and militia ships cut our path. They water-cannoned us, then bumped us. It’s angering.”

“This really needs a diplomatic solution at the higher level,” he said, but added that the Philippine “armed forces will continue our mission because it is lawful and it’s our obligation to bring supplies to our troops in the frontlines, and it’s our obligation to protect our fishermen.”

In this handout photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, a Chinese Coast Guard ship uses water cannons on Philippine navy-operated supply boat M/L Kalayaan as it approaches Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, in the disputed South China Sea on Sunday. PHOTO: AP

Brawner, the US-educated chief of the 150,000-member Armed Forces of the Philippines, joined navy personnel in a wooden-hulled supply boat, the Unnaiza Mae 1, which brought Christmas gifts, food and other supplies to a small contingent of Filipino marines and navy personnel stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal.

Although now crumbling with rust and holes, the slightly listing BRP Sierra Madre remains an actively commissioned Philippine navy ship, meaning any assault on it would be considered an act of war. It has become a fragile symbol of the territorial claims of the Philippines in the strategic waterway, which China claims virtually in its entirety.

After the Philippines deliberately grounded the Sierra Madre in the shallows of Scarborough Shoal in 1999, China surrounded the atoll with its coast guard, navy and suspected militia ships to isolate the Filipino forces there. The yearslong territorial standoff has flared regularly and became one of the most delicate flashpoints in the South China Sea and a delicate fault line in the US-China regional rivalry.

The United States has repeatedly warned it is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships or aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea. China has warned the US not to meddle in what it says is a purely Asian dispute.

Brawner said he conveyed President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s Christmas greetings to the Filipino forces aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, where he shared a traditional rice lunch eaten by hand with them.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said it summoned the Chinese ambassador Monday and filed diplomatic protests against Beijing.

A Philippine coast guard spokesman, Commodore Jay Tarriela, called the Chinese coast guard’s actions “barbaric” in a news conference and said the Philippine coast guard would not use its water cannons against China’s ships.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri called on Marcos to order the expulsion of the Chinese ambassador, but the Marcos administration has not indicated how it would react to the call.

On Sunday, Marcos said that “the aggression and provocations perpetrated by the China coast guard and their Chinese maritime militia against our vessels and personnel over the weekend have only further steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” in the South China Sea.

In this image made from video handout provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, a Chinese Coast Guard ship rams the Philippine navy-operated supply boat Unaizah Mae 1 as it approaches Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, in the disputed South China Sea on Sunday. PHOTO: AP

Over the weekend, Philippine officials said the Chinese coast guard and suspected militia ships targetted Philippine vessels two days in a row with water cannon blasts and rammed one of them, causing damage and endangering Filipino crew members off the Second Thomas Shoal and separately in the Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines.

The Philippines, along with the US and Japan, condemned the manoeuvers by the Chinese coast guard and accompanying ships. More than a dozen countries, including the European Union, Germany, France, Canada and Australia, also expressed support to the Philippines and expressed alarm over the incident, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Teresita Daza said.

Philippine officials said the Chinese coast guard’s high-pressure water cannon blasts disabled and damaged the engines of the Philippine supply boat M/L Kalayaan, which had to be towed back to a Philippine port.

One of two Philippine coast guard escort ships, the BRP Cabra, sustained damage to its mast due to the water cannon blast.

The Chinese coast guard said it had “implemented controls in accordance with laws and regulations.” The statement gave no details about the measures taken but said the Philippines action “seriously infringed on China’s sovereignty.”

It also said a Philippine vessel ignored warnings and, in violation of international navigation regulations, made a sharp turn in an “unprofessional and dangerous manner” and intentionally collided with a Chinese coast guard ship, causing “scratching.”

“The responsibility lies entirely with the Philippine side,” the Chinese coast guard said.

The US State Department said the actions by China’s ship “were dangerous and unlawful” and undermined regional stability. It renewed a vow that it would defend Philippine forces if they face an armed attack.

China has rejected all international condemnation and attempts at legal intervention, including a 2016 ruling by a UN-backed arbitration tribunal that invalidated China’s claims, leaving them without any legal basis. China says it has a legal right to “defend its sovereignty” in keeping with its expansive claim to the South China Sea.

On Saturday, the Chinese coast guard and accompanying ships also trained water cannons at three Philippine fisheries vessels, causing damage to one, to prevent them from approaching Scarborough Shoal in the disputed waters off the northwestern Philippines, Filipino officials said.

They added that suspected Chinese militia vessels used a long-range acoustic device that could impair hearing, causing “severe temporary discomfort and incapacitation to some Filipino crew.”

In other high seas clashes this year, Philippines officials said that Chinese coast guard ships used a military-grade laser that caused Filipino crew members temporary blindness and engaged in dangerous blocking and shadowing manoeuvers that caused minor collisions.

In this handout photo provided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines PAO, Philippine military chief, General Brawner (right) and Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos (left) Commander of the AFP’s Western Command shares a meal with Filipino marines and navy personnel stationed aboard the long-marooned BRP Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, at the disputed South China Sea on Sunday. PHOTO: AP
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