By Rene Acosta
Two Chinese Coast Guard vessels attacked with water cannons two Filipino boats chartered by the Philippine military to bring supplies to its troops in the Second Thomas Shoal, prompting the Philippine government to file a diplomatic protest against China.
The incident, which occurred on Tuesday November 16, Manila time, and forced the two civilian ships to abort their resupply mission for the military, marked Beijing’s escalation of its harassment of vessels in the maritime waters that it disputes against the Philippines.
The attack on Filipino boats Unaiza Mae 1 and Unaiza Mae 3 inside the Second Thomas Shoal within the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) that lasted for at least an hour broke the outrigger of one of the two boats, prompting it to head back to the nearest island of Palawan along with the other boat.
While the Armed Forces of the Philippines has not comment on the incident, it happened while it is holding its biggest land, sea and air exercise “AJEX-Dagit.” It also occurred while the United States and the Philippines were concluding a bilateral dialogue in Washington D.C. where both declared that the Mutual Defense Treaty covers attacks in the South China Sea.
According to National Security Adviser and National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) Hermogenes Esperon Jr., the two Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked the two boats on resupply mission, while a third Chinese Coast Guard ship water cannoned the two boats for at least an hour.
A military official having jurisdiction over the shoal however said it was the two Chinese Coast Guard ships that attacked the two boats while the third Chinese vessel stayed at the mouth of the shoal, apparently in order to serve as guard.
While in the past, China has intimidated and attacked Filipino fishing boats inside Philippine maritime waters that it disputes and harassed resupply missions to Filipino troops guarding the Second Thomas Shoal, this is the first time that it actually attacked such supply mission for the military.
Officially, the military leadership remained mum on the incident and on the aborted mission for the soldiers aboard the partly sunken BRP Sierra Madre which they are using as an outpost in watching the shoal.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he had lodged a diplomatic protest against Beijing and expressed the Philippines’ “outrage, condemnation and protest” of the incident.
“Ayungin Shoal is part of the Kalayaan Island Group, which is an integral part of the Philippines, as well as the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and over which the Philippines has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” Locsin said.
“The acts of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels are illegal. China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off,” he added.
Locsin said he reminded China that a “public vessel is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty.”
According to Esperon, a week before the attack, the government has noticed the unusual rise in the number of Chinese maritime militia vessels at the Second Thomas Shoal and in Pagasa Island in the West Philippine Sea.