Aaron Favila / AP
MANILA, Philippines (AP) The Philippine military defiantly relocated two supply ships Monday to provide food for Philippine Marines guarding a disputed herd in the South China Sea after Chinese coastguards used water cannons to forcefully remove boats in an attack last week. which drew angry condemnations and warnings from Manila.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the two wooden hull civilian ships transporting Navy personnel left the western province of Palawan and must reach the Marines stationed on a Navy ship in the Second Thomas Shoal after an overnight voyage. Lorenzana said the boats are not being escorted by the navy or coast guard in line with a request from China’s ambassador to Manila, who, he said, assured him in talks over the weekend that the boats would no longer be blocked.
However, a naval aircraft will fly over the distant land, which has been surrounded by Chinese surveillance vessels in a territorial blockade for years, when Philippine boats reach it, the defense chief said. The Philippines says the ball is in its exclusive internationally recognized economic zone, but China insists it has sovereignty over the waters.
“The Chinese ambassador assured me that they would not be hindered, but they asked that there be no escort,” Lorenzana told reporters. Asked if he expected the ships not to be blocked, he replied: “We will see.”
The government conveyed its “anger, condemnation and protest over the incident” in China after two Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked two Philippine boats on Tuesday and a third Coast Guard vessel sprayed high-pressure water currents on the boats, which were forced interrupt their mission to transport food to the Coast Guard, officials said.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. ordered Beijing ships to withdraw and warned China that Manila supply ships are covered by a reciprocal defense treaty with the United States. Washington later said it was standing by the Philippines “in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability” and reiterated that “an armed attack on Philippine public ships in the South China Sea would prompt US mutual defense commitments.” of “under the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded to Philippine protests by saying China’s coast guard had backed Chinese sovereignty after Filipino ships entered Chinese waters overnight without permission.
It was the latest outburst in the long-running territorial disputes on the strategic waterway, where China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims. China claims almost the entire South China Sea and has transformed seven bundles into missile-protected island bases to cement its claims, raising tensions.
Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said the number of Chinese surveillance vessels has increased alarmingly in recent weeks on the small coast and also around Thitu, a larger island occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago in the area contested the South China Sea.
China has recently renewed its call to the Philippines to withdraw its BRP navy ship Sierra Madre, which the Philippine Navy has used as a post and offered Chinese aid, a Filipino official said on condition of anonymity because of lack of authority to discuss sensitive issues publicly.
But the Philippine government has said it will never back down from the sphere and cited a 2016 ruling by a UN-backed international arbitration panel that devalued China’s historic claims to almost the entire South China Sea. China has rejected it and continues to oppose the decision.
The Philippine military deliberately hit the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era US-supplied warship, off the coast in 1999, in a move to bolster its claim. The Sierra Madre is now actually a sunken ship, but the Philippine military has not dismantled it. This makes the rust-painted ship an extension of the government and means that any attack on the ship is tantamount to an attack against the Philippines.
A Filipino senator, Panfilo Lacson, said he flew to Thitu on Saturday and his plane received a radio message from the Chinese Coast Guard warning him to stay away. Lacson, who is running for president in next year’s election, said he and his comrades landed on the island, where they hoisted three Philippine flags and conducted a flag-raising ceremony as Chinese Coast Guard ships patrolled nearby.
“This is my country, not theirs. They were wrong,” said Lacson, a former national police chief.
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