AN AERIAL VIEW of the BRP Sierra Madre at the contested Second Thomas Shoal on March 9, 2023. — REUTERS

THE US State Department on Tuesday condemned what it called “escalatory and irresponsible” actions by China and reaffirmed that its Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines applied to any attacks on Philippine armed forces, vessels, or aircraft anywhere in the South China Sea.

A Philippine supply ship dangerously approached a Chinese vessel and collided with it after it illegally intruded into waters near Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, the Chinese Coast Guard said on Monday. Manila has called the claim “deceptive and misleading.”

In a statement, the US State Department called the incident the latest in a series of Chinese “provocations” to impede supplies from reaching Philippine personnel stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era ship that Manila grounded at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to assert its sovereignty.

“This escalatory incident is the latest in a series of PRC (People’s Republic of China) provocations to impede critically needed supplies from reaching service members stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre,” Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller said in the statement posted on the agency’s website.

“PRC (People’s Republic of China) vessels’ dangerous and deliberate use of water cannons, ramming, blocking maneuvers and towing damaged Philippine vessels, endangered the lives of Philippine service members, is reckless, and threatens regional peace and stability,” he added.

The Philippine military on Monday said it would resist Chinese actions in disputed waters.

US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson condemned China’s “aggressive, dangerous” maneuvers in a post on X, saying the collision had “caused bodily injury.”

“Beijing’s actions reflect consistent disregard for the safety of Filipinos and for international law in the South China Sea,” she added.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on July 12, 2016 ruled China’s claim of historic rights to resources within its so-called nine-dash line was illegal.

China has largely ignored the ruling, calling it void. Aside from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the waterway.

China’s coast guard has repeatedly used high-pressure water cannons to dissuade Philippine vessels from entering highly contested areas within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) including Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal.

In a separate statement, the US State Department said US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Maria Theresa P. Lazaro on Monday spoke via telephone and shared their concerns over China’s obstruction of Philippine resupply missions in the waterway.

“Deputy Secretary Campbell and Undersecretary Lazaro further reiterated the critical importance of the United States-Philippine alliance to maintaining our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” it said.

China’s coast guard took measures after the collision with the Philippine supply vessel including “boarding inspections and forced evictions,” spokesman Gan Yu said in a statement late Monday.

China has warned the Philippines about intruding into what it says are its territorial waters. It issued new rules, effective June 15, enforcing a 2021 law that allows its coast guard to use lethal force against foreign ships in waters it claims.

The rules allow China’s coast guard to detain suspected trespassers without trial for 60 days. 

In response, the Philippine Coast Guard said it had ordered the deployment of two vessels to patrol and ensure the safety of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal — a second flashpoint about 640 km (345 nautical miles) from Second Thomas Shoal.

Separately, the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement it had concluded a two-day joint maritime exercise with the militaries of Canada, Japan and the Philippines within Manila’s EEZ in the South China Sea.

In a statement on Monday, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea condemned what it called China’s “illegal and aggressive actions” after Sunday’s collision.

“Despite the illegal, aggressive, and reckless actions by the Chinese maritime forces, our personnel showed restraint and professionalism, refrained from escalating the tension and carried on with their mission,” it said.

“The Philippines is committed to pursuing peaceful and responsible actions in accordance with international law. It is our expectation that China, as a member of the international community, would also do the same,” it added.

The Group of Seven (G7) on Saturday called out China for its increasing use of dangerous maneuvers and water cannons against Philippine vessels. It opposed Chinese “intimidation activities” in the South China Sea.

In a communiqué after the G7 Summit in Apulia, Italy, the leaders of the powerful economic bloc raised concerns about the situation in the East and South China Seas, reiterating their “strong opposition to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force or coercion.”

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs welcomed the G7’s support of the 2016 arbitral ruling in a statement late Monday, as it called on China to work toward de-escalating the tensions peacefully.

“The Philippines urges China to stop its provocative behavior and distortion of the facts, including through enactment and enforcement of domestic laws and regulations that overreach into the legally settled maritime zones of the Philippines in violation of international law,” it said.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said the G7 statement is an attempt to “vilify and attack” China, calling the claims of coercion in the waterway baseless.

“The G7 has long strayed from its original purpose of coordinating for stability in the global economic environment and has increasingly become a political tool to perpetuate US and Western supremacy,” he told a news briefing on Monday. — John Victor D. Ordoñez with Reuters