A Chinese coastguard ship blocked a Philippine patrol boat heading into a disputed shoal in the South China Sea – causing a near-crash in the latest act of Beijing’s aggression in the strategic waterway.
The high seas face-off on Sunday between the larger Chinese ship and the Philippine coastguard’s BRP Malapascua near the Second Thomas Shoal was among the tense moments it and another Philippine vessel encountered in a week-long sovereignty patrol in one of the world’s most hotly contested waterways.
The Philippine coastguard had invited a small group of journalists, including three from the Associated Press, to join the 1,038-mile patrol for the first time as part of a new Philippine strategy aimed at exposing China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where an estimated £4 trillion in global trade transits each year.
In scorching summer heat but relatively calm waters, the Malapascua and another Philippine coastguard vessel, the BRP Malabrigo, journeyed to the frontlines of the long-seething territorial conflicts.
In areas occupied or controlled by China, the Philippine patrol vessels received radio warnings in Chinese and halting English, ordering them to immediately leave what the Chinese coastguard and navy radio callers claimed were Beijing’s “undisputable territories” and issuing unspecified threats for defiance.
Hostilities peaked on Sunday morning in the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys archipelago, the most fiercely contested region in the busy sea channel.
As the two patrol vessels approached the shoal’s shallow turquoise waters for an underwater survey, the Chinese coastguard repeatedly warned them by radio to leave the area, which is about 121 miles west of the Philippine island province of Palawan.
After several radio exchanges, a Chinese coastguard caller, sounding agitated, warned of unspecified adversarial action.
“Since you have disregarded our warning, we will take further necessary measures on you in accordance with the laws and any consequences entailed will be borne by you,” the Chinese speaker said.
A Chinese coastguard ship rapidly approached and shadowed the smaller Malapascua and the Malabrigo.
To avoid a crash, Mr Hernandez abruptly reversed his vessel’s direction, then shut off its engine to bring the boat to a full stop.
Filipino personnel aboard the vessels — and journalists, who captured the tense moment on camera — watched in frightened silence.
But the Malapascua steered just in time to avoid a potential disaster.
Mr Hernandez later told journalists the “sudden and really very dangerous manoeuvre” by the Chinese coastguard ship had disregarded international rules on collision avoidance.
He had the Philippine vessels leave the area after the encounter for the safety of the ships and personnel.
Earlier, a huge Chinese navy ship shadowed the two Philippine patrol vessels in the dark of night as they cruised near Subi, one of seven barren reefs China has transformed in the last decade into a missile-protected island base.
The Chinese navy ship radioed the Philippine vessels “to immediately leave and keep out”.
The coastguard radioed back to assert Philippine sovereign rights to the area before steaming away.
China has long demanded that the Philippines withdraw its small contingent of naval forces and tow away the actively commissioned but crumbling BRP Sierra Madre.
Chinese ships often block navy vessels delivering food and other supplies to the Filipino sailors on the ship, including just a few days earlier, Mr Hernandez said.
As hostilities between Chinese coastguard and navy ships and the Philippine patrol vessels were unfolding, Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang was in Manila, where he held talks with his Philippine counterpart and President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr on Saturday.
China is willing to work with the Philippines to resolve differences and deepen ties, Mr Qin said.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the encounters.
In another Philippine-claimed reef called Whitsun, the Philippine patrol vessels spotted more than 100 suspected Chinese militia ships arrayed side by side in several clusters in the shallows.
China says the huge trawler-like ships are fishing vessels but Manila’s coastguard suspects they are being used for surveillance or to hold the reef for future development.
Filipino coastguard personnel aboard two motor boats approached the Chinese ships and ordered them through a loudspeaker to leave, but none did.
Philippine officials required participating journalists to not immediately release information about the trip to ensure the safety of the mission and to give the coastguard time to brief defence, justice and foreign affairs officials in charge of handling the touchy territorial conflicts.
Faced with a militarily far-superior China in the disputed waters, the Philippines launched the campaign early this year to expose the Asian superpower’s aggression, hoping public awareness and criticism will force Beijing to abide by international law.
He noted the Chinese ambassador in Manila was prompted to hold a press conference to explain Beijing’s side amid outrage over a publicly released video that showed a Chinese coastguard ship aiming a military-grade laser in early February that temporarily blinded two crew members of the Malapascua off the Second Thomas Shoal.
The territorial conflicts involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have long been regarded as an Asian flashpoint and a delicate fault line in the rivalry between the United States and China in the region.
While the US lays no claims to the South China Sea, it has deployed its warships and fighter jets for patrols and military exercises with regional allies to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight, which it says is in America’s national interest.
Beijing has criticised a recent agreement by the Philippines and the US to grant American forces access to additional Filipino military camps.
China fears the access will provide Washington with military staging grounds and surveillance outposts in the northern Philippines across the sea from Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory, and in provinces facing the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety.
Washington has repeatedly warned it will help to defend the Philippines — its oldest treaty ally in Asia — if Philippine forces, ships or aircraft are attacked in the South China Sea.
With multiple conflicts looming in what appears to be a placid expanse of sea, where dolphins and starlit night skies send seafarers grabbing for their cameras, Malabrigo’s skipper Julio Colarina III said he will always strive to stay on the right side of a geopolitical minefield.
“As much as possible we’ll avoid conflict in the area,” he said. “All these competing interests just need one spark.”