Chinese, Philippine Vessels Collide Near Contested Shoal

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Chinese, Philippine Vessels Collide Near Contested Shoal

While minor, the two collisions demonstrate the dangers inherent in Beijing’s campaign of escalation in the South China Sea.

Chinese, Philippine Vessels Collide Near Contested Shoal

This image from a video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, shows a Chinese coast guard ship with bow number 5203 after bumping a Filipino supply boat in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, Oct. 22, 2023.

Credit: Armed Forces of the Philippines via AP

A Chinese coast guard ship and a maritime militia vessel collided with a Philippine coast guard ship and a military-run supply boat yesterday in two separate incidents in the vicinity of the contested Second Thomas Shoal, the latest sign of frictions in the contested South China Sea.

In a statement yesterday, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), as Manila refers to its portion of the South China Sea, reported that a Chinese coast guard vessel collided with a Philippine Navy-contracted civilian supply boat close to the shoal in the early hours of yesterday morning. This was followed about two hours later by an incident in which a Chinese maritime militia ship and a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel bumped into each other.

The Chinese actions were an apparent attempt to prevent the Philippine vessels from resupplying the Sierra Madre, a decrepit World War II-era ship that was intentionally grounded in the shoal’s shallow waters in 1999.

In its statement, the NTF-WPS said that it “condemns in the strongest degree the latest dangerous, irresponsible, and illegal actions of the CCG and the Chinese maritime militia.” It said that it had been carried out “in violation of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction” and “in utter blatant disregard” of international maritime law.

Videos released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Palawan-based Western Command show both incidents. One, shot from the supply boat, shows it being hit by the bow of the China Coast Guard vessel 5203, an impact that appears to dislodge a railing on the ship’s starboard side. The other video, shot by a drone, appears to show a slight encounter between a Chinese maritime militia vessel and a PCG ship, though both appear to be stationary.

According to the statement, the resupply mission was successfully completed, despite the Chinese attempts at obstruction. A top Philippine security official told The Associated Press that there were no injuries among the Filipino crew members and an assessment of the damage to both vessels was underway.

According to AP, the official “added that the incidents near the Second Thomas Shoal could have been worse if they were not able to maneuver rapidly away from the Chinese ships.”

The U.S. ambassador to Manila, MaryKay Carlson, said in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), that “the United States condemns the PRC’s latest disruption of a legal Philippine resupply mission to Ayungin shoal, putting the lives of Filipino service members at risk.” Notably, she used the Filipino name for the shoal.

The incident is just the latest to have taken place in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal, which, like the other eight Philippine-occupied features in the Spratly Islands, China claims under its expansive “nine-dash line” claim. On August 5, a China Coast Guard vessel blocked and shot a water cannon at a Philippine navy-chartered supply boat attempting to reach the Sierra Madre. This came after a similar incident in February involving a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel over the use of a military-grade laser.

The Philippines has since conducted a number of successful resupply missions to the Sierra Madre, but always in the shadow of a Chinese presence. On October 4, CCG and maritime militia ships blocked and surrounded the two Philippine coast guard escort vessels, blocking them from approaching the shoal. The ships reportedly came close to colliding, with the CCG moving to within one meter of the PCG vessel.

In recent months, China has also kept up its pressure in other parts of the South China Sea. Late last month, it installed an underwater barrier to prevent Filipino fisherfolk from entering Scarborough Shoal, due west of Luzon. This was followed earlier this month by an incident in which a Chinese navy vessel cut across the bow of a Philippine navy transport ship close to Thitu Island, the largest and most strategically important of the Philippine-occupied features in the South China Sea.

Given this pattern of growing assertiveness, it was clearly only a matter of time before a collision took place.

Unusually, the Chinese government released a rapid statement of its own about yesterday’s incident. The CCG said the Philippine vessels “trespassed” into what it said were Chinese waters “without authorization” despite repeated radio warnings. It blamed the Philippine vessels for causing the collisions, saying that the Philippines supply boat deliberately cut across the CCG vessel’s path, causing its bow to hit the boat’s side. Regarding the second contact, it stated that the PCG ship deliberately reversed while in close proximity to the Chinese maritime militia vessel, causing its rear to collide with the latter’s starboard side.

“The Philippine side’s behavior seriously violates the international rules on avoiding collisions at sea and threatens the navigation safety of our vessels,” the CCG said in a statement posted on its website.

It also released its own video footage of the incidents, shot aboard from the CCG vessel and via drone.

Without knowing the earlier trajectory of the two ships in the minutes leading up to the collisions, it is hard to contextualize them. But in some ways the question of proximate responsibility is beside the point. Second Thomas Shoal lies well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, as recognized by the 2016 arbitral ruling that rejected China’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea as invalid under international maritime law. As a result, Manila has every right to resupply its troops stationed there. Given that the Chinese vessels were seeking to impede this lawful exercise of sovereignty, they bear ultimate responsibility for the collisions that took place.

The timing of the incident deserves some attention. As one Vietnamese observer noted, the first brief Chinese statement on the incident was released at 6:11 a.m., just seven minutes after the collision was reported to have taken place. The swiftness with which the statement was released prompted the observer to speculate that the incident was not a mere accident, but that Beijing “had premeditated a strong response to intercept the Philippine supply mission, indicative of a calculated escalation.”

Whether or not the Chinese side specifically intended to ram the Philippine vessels – and intent is hard to gauge given the recent string of close calls in contested waters – it is clear that recent months have seen a concerted campaign of escalation aimed at loosening Manila’s hold over its features in the South China Sea. This runs the risk not only of a serious accident, but, given the U.S. security guarantee to the Philippines, also potentially of a wider conflict.