May 28, 2024

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The Philippines confronts China over maritime claims

The Philippines confronts China over maritime claims

ABOARD BRP MALABRIGO (AP) – A Chinese coast guard vessel blocked a Philippine patrol vessel that was navigating disputed shoals in the South China Sea, causing a near-frightening collision in the final act of Beijing’s aggression in the strategic waterway.

The confrontation on the high seas Sunday between the larger Chinese ship and the Philippine coast guard BRP Malapascua near the Thomas Shoal II was among the tense moments it and another Philippine vessel faced on a week-long sovereign patrol in one of the world’s most contested waterways.

The Philippine Coast Guard has invited a small group of journalists, including three from the Associated Press, to join the 1,670-kilometre (1,038-mile) patrol for the first time as part of New Philippine strategy It aims to expose China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade is transited each year.

In the scorching summer heat but relatively calm waters, the Malapascua and another Philippine Coast Guard vessel, the BRP Malabrigo, traveled to the front lines of long-running territorial conflicts. They circumnavigated the chain of islands, islets, and widely spread reefs that the Philippines occupies and claims, looking for signs of trespassing, poaching, and other threats.

In Chinese-occupied or controlled areas, Philippine patrol vessels received radio warnings in Chinese and English, immediately ordering them to leave what the Chinese Coast Guard and Navy radio communicators claimed were Beijing’s “non-disputed areas” and issued unspecified threats of defiance.

The hostilities reached their climax Sunday morning in the Philippine-occupied second district of Thomas Scholl.

As the two patrol vessels approached the turquoise waters shoals in the shoal to conduct an underwater survey, the Chinese coast guard warned them repeatedly by radio to leave the area, which is about 194 kilometers (121 miles) west of the Philippine island province of Palawan.

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After several radio exchanges, a Chinese coast guard caller, looking exasperated, warned of an unspecified hostile action.

The Chinese spokesperson said: “Since you ignored our warning, we will take further necessary measures against you in accordance with the laws, and you will bear any consequences.”

The Chinese coast guard ship quickly approached and shadowed Malapascua the Lesser and Malabrigo. The Malapascua’s captain, Capt. Rodell Hernandez, said that as the Malapascua moved towards the mouth of the shoal, the Chinese ship suddenly moved to block it, coming within 36 to 46 meters (120 to 150 ft) of its bow.

To avoid collision, Hernandez abruptly reversed direction of his ship and then shut down her engine to bring the boat to a complete stop.

The Filipino staff on board the ships – and the journalists, who caught the tense moment on camera – watched in horrified silence. But Malapascua headed out just in time to avert potential disaster.

Hernandez later told reporters that the “really very sudden and dangerous maneuver” by the Chinese coast guard vessel had disregarded international rules on collision avoidance. He ordered the Filipino ships to leave the area after the confrontation for the safety of the ships and personnel.

Earlier, a massive Chinese naval vessel shadowed the two Philippine patrol ships in the dark of night as they cruised near Subi, one of seven barren coral reefs that China has turned in the past decade into a missile-protected island base. The Chinese Navy ship radioed the Philippine ships to “immediately leave and move away”.

The Coast Guard radioed back to confirm the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the area before turning away.

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China has long demanded that the Philippines withdraw its small group of naval forces and that of the actively commissioned but downed BRB Sierra Madre. The offshore vessel was deliberately stranded in shallow waters in 1999 and now serves as a fragile symbol of Manila’s territorial claim to the atoll.

Hernandez said that Chinese ships often block naval vessels bringing food and other supplies for Filipino sailors aboard, including just a few days ago.

On another Philippine reef called Whitsun, Philippine patrol vessels spotted more than 100 suspected Chinese militia vessels arrayed side by side in several groups in the shallow waters. China says the large trawler-like vessels are fishing trawlers, but the Manila Coast Guard suspects they are being used for surveillance or to preserve the reef for future development.

Philippine coast guard personnel in two boats approached the Chinese ships and ordered them via megaphone to leave, but none did.

Philippine officials asked participating journalists not to immediately release information about the voyage to ensure the safety of the mission and to give the Coast Guard time to brief defense, justice and foreign affairs officials responsible for handling sensitive regional disputes.

Faced with a militarily superior China in disputed waters, the Philippines launched a campaign early this year to expose the Asian superpower’s aggression, hoping public awareness and criticism would force Beijing to abide by international law.

Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela said the strategy is working. He noted that the Chinese ambassador in Manila was urged to hold a press conference to explain Beijing’s position amid outrage over a publicly released video showing a Chinese coast guard vessel. Aim for a military-grade laser In early February, this temporarily blinded two Malapascua crewmen off Thomas Scholl II.

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Regional disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have long been seen as an Asian flashpoint and a delicate fault line in the rivalry between the United States and China in the region.

While the United States does not lay claim to the South China Sea, it has deployed its warships and fighter jets on patrols and military exercises with regional allies to support freedom of navigation and overflight, which it says is in the area. American national interest.

Beijing criticized the recent agreement between the Philippines and the United States Granting US forces access to additional Philippine military camps. China fears that access would provide Washington with military staging bases and observation points 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 almost entirely.

Washington has repeatedly warned that it will help defend the Philippines – its oldest treaty ally in Asia – if Philippine troops, ships or aircraft are attacked in the South China Sea.

With multiple conflicts looming over what appears to be a calm expanse of sea, where dolphins and a starlit night sky send sailors to snap their cameras, Malabrigo captain Julio Collarena said he would always strive to stay on the right side of a geopolitical minefield.

“As much as possible, we will avoid conflict in the region,” he said. “All these competing interests need only one spark.” ___

Associated Press journalists Joel Kalupitan and Aaron Favela contributed to this report.


Find out more of the AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage at http://www.apc