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China blames Philippines for ship collision in South China Sea

A Chinese vessel and a Philippine supply ship collided near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Monday (Aaron Favila/AP)
A Chinese vessel and a Philippine supply ship collided near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Monday (Aaron Favila/AP)

A Chinese vessel and a Philippine supply ship collided near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Monday, China’s coast guard said, in the latest flare-up of escalating territorial disputes that have sparked alarm.

The coast guard said a Philippine supply ship entered waters near the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands, part of a territory claimed by several nations.

The Philippines says the shoal falls within its internationally recognised exclusive economic zone and often cites a 2016 international arbitration ruling invalidating China’s expansive South China Sea claims based on historical grounds.

A Philippine Marine, right, swims in the waters of Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea
A Philippine Marine, right, swims in the waters of Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea (Bullit Marquez/AP)

The Chinese coast guard said the Philippine craft “ignored China’s repeated solemn warnings… and dangerously approached a Chinese vessel in normal navigation in an unprofessional manner, resulting in a collision”.

“The Philippines is entirely responsible for this,” the coast guard said in its statement on the social media platform WeChat.

Meanwhile, the Philippine military called the Chinese coast guard’s report “deceptive and misleading,” and said it would “not discuss operational details on the legal humanitarian rotation and resupply mission at Ayungin Shoal, which is well within our exclusive economic zone”.

It used the Philippine name for the shoal, where Filipino navy personnel have transported food, medicine and other supplies to a long-grounded warship that has served as Manila’s territorial outpost.

“We will not dignify the deceptive and misleading claims of the China coast guard,” military spokesman Colonel Xerxes Trinidad said.

“The main issue remains to be the illegal presence and actions of Chinese vessels within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, which infringes on our sovereignty and sovereign rights.”

“The continued aggressive actions of the CCG are escalating tensions in the region,” Col Trinidad added.

Two speedboats — attempting to deliver construction materials and other supplies to a military vessel stationed at the shoal — accompanied the supply ship, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, which described its coast guard’s manoeuvre as “professional, restrained, reasonable and lawful”.

The Foreign Ministry did not expand on the extent of the damage to the Chinese or Philippine vessels.

Several incidents have happened in recent months near the shoal which lies less than 200 nautical miles from The Philippines coast and where it maintains an outpost aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, which had been encrusted with rust since it was deliberately grounded in 1999 but remains an actively commissioned military vessel, meaning an attack on it could be considered by the Philippines as an act of war.

China has increasingly become assertive in pressing its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, which has led to a rising number of direct conflicts with other countries in the region, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam.

A new law by China, which took effect Saturday, authorises its coast guard to seize foreign ships “that illegally enter China’s territorial waters” and to detain foreign crews for up to 60 days.

The law renewed a reference to 2021 legislation that says China’s coast guard can fire upon foreign ships if necessary.

At least three coastal governments with claims to the waters — the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan — have said they would not recognise the law.