Chinese Coast Guard Attacks Philippine Ships in Disputed 'South China Sea'

Philippine officials said the ships were badly damaged and several crew members were injured

by Sededin Dedovic
Chinese Coast Guard Attacks Philippine Ships in Disputed 'South China Sea'
© Ezra Acayan / Getty Images

The South China Sea (it has several names, depending on the claimant state) has become a focal point for escalating tensions between China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. A recent incident involving a Philippine supply vessel and the Chinese coast guard underscores the fragility of the situation and the potential for a wider conflict.

Chinese coast guard ships attacked a Philippine supply ship - with water cannons - near a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, injuring crew members and causing extensive damage to the ship, Philippine officials said today.

Philippine ship attacked in disputed territory

Philippine officials reported that a Chinese coast guard ship attacked a Philippine water cannon supply ship without warning near a disputed reef in the South China Sea that has been the subject of a dispute for years.

The attack, which occurred near Second Thomas Shoal, resulted in injuries to Filipino crew members and significant damage to the vessel. Second Thomas Shoal has been a point of contention for years, with a small contingent of Philippine marines stationed there since 1999.

However, the area is effectively surrounded by Chinese ships, making resupply a constant challenge. The Philippine government strongly condemned the attack, calling it "reckless and dangerous". Philippine Coast Guard patrol boats were able to break through the Chinese blockade to help the injured crew and tow away the damaged ship.

A separate Philippine motor boat successfully delivered a new group of marines and supplies to the disputed reef, despite attempts by the Chinese coast guard to block them with a floating barrier. The Philippines calls this sea the West Philippine Sea, and recently tensions over this disputed area have increased with incidents almost every month.

Chinese Coast Guard personnel are seen as Philippine ships conduct a resupply mission to troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal© Ezra Acayan / Getty Images

In response, Chinese Coast Guard spokesman Gan Yu claimed that Philippine ships had entered Chinese territorial waters despite repeated warnings.

However, the Philippine authorities said that they did not enter Chinese waters and that it was an international sea, and there was no warning from the Chinese. However, the Chinese Coast Guard characterized the Chinese actions as a "lawful operation to intercept and expel foreign vessels" carried out in a "reasonable and professional manner".

International reaction and competing claims

The incident drew swift condemnation from the United States and Japan, which expressed support for the Philippines and condemned the "aggression" of Chinese forces. This underscores growing international concern over China's assertive actions in the South China Sea.

It is important to remember that in 2016, an international arbitration court ruled against China's expansive claims in the South China Sea, a decision China continues to reject. In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines against China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

This ruling, which was based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), rejected most of China's historical rights to almost the entire South China Sea covered by their nine-sided boundary. The court ruled that some of the Philippines' claims to areas within the nine-dash line were consistent with UNCLOS and recognized the Philippines' rights to resources within its EEZ zone.
The ruling was a significant victory for the Philippines and dealt a serious blow to China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

A complex dispute with historical roots

China's territorial claims in the South China Sea date back centuries and are based on a historical concept known as the "nine-dash line." This line encompasses almost the entire South China Sea, including areas far from the Chinese mainland.

However, these claims are disputed by several other countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. These nations also have historical ties to the region and rely on the South China Sea for vital resources and economic activity.

The stakes are high

The South China Sea is a key waterway for global trade. Trillions of dollars worth of goods pass through the region every year, making it vital to the international economy. Freedom of navigation in these waters is a significant concern for many countries, including the United States, which regularly conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) to challenge China's excessive territorial claims.

The recent incident underscores the urgent need for a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea before the situation escalates. This can be achieved through diplomatic channels, by respecting international law, but as we have already said, China rejects the verdict of international courts.

Failure to resolve these tensions peacefully could have dire consequences. Increased militarization, accidental confrontations and potential miscalculations could lead to a wider conflict. Such a scenario would disrupt global trade, threaten the security of Southeast Asia, and potentially draw in major powers like the United States and China, which is the biggest risk.