Water cannon: China’s weapon of choice in disputed South China Sea

The Philippines accused the Chinese Coast Guard of blocking a Filipino supply boat and damaging it with water cannons on the morning of March 23, off a remote and contested South China Sea reef. The nearly hour-long attack happened off Second Thomas Shoal, where Chinese ships have unleashed water cannons and clashed with Filipino boats in similar stand-offs in recent months. The March 23 incident was the latest in a series of provocations by China.

The Philippine military published video clips that showed a white ship repeatedly dousing a boat with a water cannon. One clip revealed two white ships simultaneously firing water at the same boat. Another clip depicted a white ship marked “China Coast Guard” crossing the bow of the Filipino supply boat Unaizah May 4 (UM4), while it was on the way to Second Thomas Shoal, also known locally as Ayungin Shoal. 

“The UM4 supply boat sustained heavy damages at around 08:52 (am) due to the continued blasting of water cannons from the CCG vessels,” the military said in a statement, without describing the nature of the damage or whether there were any casualties.

A Philippine task force on the South China Sea said Chinese vessels participated in “reckless and dangerous” behavior toward the Philippine boat, which led to the firing of water cannons. A Philippine coast guard escort vessel later reached the damaged boat “to provide assistance”, the military said.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, Philippine coast guard spokesperson, said in a statement that its escort vessel to the UM4 supply boat, the BRP Cabra, was “impeded and encircled” by three Chinese coast guard and other vessels. Consequently, the Cabra was “isolated from the resupply boat due to the irresponsible and provocative behavior of the Chinese maritime forces,” he added.

China coast guard spokesman Gan Yu said in a statement that the Philippine convoy “forcibly intruded into the area despite the Chinese side’s repeated warnings and route controls”, adding the Chinese carried out “control, obstruction and eviction in accordance with law.”

“We sternly warn the Philippine side: those who play with fire will bring shame on themselves. The Chinese coast guard is ready at all times to resolutely safeguard our country’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” Gan added.

Later, the Philippine Foreign Ministry said it has summoned China’s envoy to convey to Beijing its strong protest against the “aggressive actions” of the Chinese vessels in the South China Sea.

“China’s aggressive actions call into question its sincerity in lowering the tensions and promoting peace and stability in the South China Sea,” the ministry said in a statement.

Beijing, nonetheless, blamed Manila and slammed the Philippine boat for intruding into its territorial waters. The Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that the Philippines will bear “all potential consequences”.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, dismissing rival claims from other countries including the Philippines and rejecting a 2016 international ruling that stated the Chinese claim has no legal basis.

The Philippines’ defense secretary, Gilberto Teodoro, has dared China to take its maritime sovereignty claims in the South China Sea to international arbitration. He said Beijing should resolve its maritime claims based on international laws rather than attacked Philippine boats.

“If China is not afraid to state its claims to the world, then why don’t we arbitrate under international law?” Teodoro told reporters on March 25.

“No country believes (their claims), and they see this as their way to use force, intimidate and bend the Philippines to their ambitions.”

This recent stand-off happened four days after visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country stood by its “ironclad” commitments to defend long-time ally Manila against armed attack in the South China Sea.

Two days after Blinken’s visit to Manila, the China coast guard also tried to drive away Filipino scientists who landed on two cays near Scarborough Shoal, another contested South China Sea outcrop.

The U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement that the U.S. “stands with its ally the Philippines” and condemns the Chinese vessels’ “dangerous actions” in the South China Sea. He said the Chinese ships’ “repeated employment of water cannons and reckless blocking maneuvers resulted in injuries to Filipino service members and significant damage to their resupply vessel, rendering it immobile.”

Miller warned Beijing that any attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, and aircraft in the South China Sea would trigger a U.S. mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s foreign ministry on March 26 voiced “grave concerns” over China’s use of water cannons against Philippine boats, saying it provoked tension in the South China Sea and imperiled a maritime order.

“We are gravely concerned about the recent and repeated use of water cannons in the South China Sea,” Seoul’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Lim Soo-suk, told a press briefing.

“These actions increase tensions in the South China Sea, a major international navigation route used by all countries including Korea, and undermine efforts to maintain peace, stability, security and a rules-based maritime order.”

He also added that the freedom of navigation and overflight must be respected by all countries based on international law. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration has been vocal about tension at the South China Sea, saying it opposes attempts to change the status quo by force.

The UM4 was also damaged in a China coast guard water cannon attack off Second Thomas Shoal earlier this month, when it was on a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, a derelict navy ship acting as an outpost, which requires frequent supplies of food, water and other necessities.

“This particular mission was set up to ensure a full troop complement on board BRP Sierra Madre after one personnel needing serious medical attention was recently evacuated,” the military added.

Four crew members had been hurt by broken glass during the previous water cannon attack on UM4.

Photo credit: iStock/ Stadtratte

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