By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

CHINESE ships on Sunday fired water cannons at three Philippine vessels on a resupply mission to a military outpost at Second Thomas Shoal, as tensions over claims in the South China Sea escalate.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) also accused China of ramming a smaller resupply boat, while China’s coast guard said the Philippine vessel had intentionally rammed its ship.

Two Philippine Navy-operated supply boats and Philippine coast guard escort ships were on their way to deliver food and other supplies to BRP Sierra Madre when Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels “harassed” them and “executed dangerous maneuvers” at close range, a national task force said in a statement.

It said the water cannon attack by Chinese Coast Guard vessel 5204 had caused severe damage to the engines of a smaller boat named M/L Kalayaan, disabling the vessel and “seriously endangering the lives of its crew.” 

The fiberglass boat, owned by the municipal government of Kalayaan, was towed back to Palawan province after the incident, it said. The local government has jurisdiction over Second Thomas Shoal and other features in the Kalayaan Island Group — the northeastern section of the Spratly Islands.

The Philippine Coast Guard’s patrol-class BRP Cabra suffered damage to its mast after being directly targeted by the full strength of the water cannon, the Philippine task force said.

Also subjected to China’s “reckless and dangerous harassment at close range” was Unaizah Mae 1 (UM1), which was allegedly rammed by Chinese Coast Guard vessel 21556.

“Despite these extreme and reckless actions, UM1 successfully reached BRP Sierra Madre,” the task force said.

Western powers quickly condemned the Chinese actions.

The Chinese ships’ aggression undermines stability in the region “in defiance of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay L. Carlson said in an X post.

European Union Ambassador Luc Veron described the Sunday attack as “deeply troubling,” saying “water cannons and dangerous sea maneuvers aren’t a legitimate alternative.”

French envoy Marie Fontanel said France is “seriously concerned” about the use of water cannons within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). “France recalls the value of international law to ensure freedom of navigation.”

Second Thomas Shoal is about 200 kilometers from the Philippine island of Palawan and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass, Hainan Island.

The Philippine task force China’s claim that its actions were a legitimate exercise of law enforcement measures “has no basis in international law.”

“Further, we express grave concern over the deliberate disinformation conducted through official channels that distort facts on the ground,” it said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion (P167 trillion) of annual ship-borne commerce, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. A United Nations-backed tribunal in 2016 said China’s claims had no legal basis. 

Beijing and Manila have been playing cat-and-mouse around the uninhabited Second Thomas Shoal in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone when the Philippines deploys resupply missions for Filipino soldiers living aboard an aging warship deliberately run aground in 1999 to protect Manila’s maritime claims.

On Saturday, Chinese Coast Guard maritime militia ships used water cannons to prevent three research vessels of the Philippines fishery bureau from delivering supplies to Filipino fisherfolk near Scarborough Shoal, which is about 120 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon.

The three research vessels of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources were hit several times by the Chinese Coast Guard ships, which started their blocking attempts at about 8 a.m., while the Philippine vessels were still 15 nautical miles (28 kilometers) from the shoal.

In Sunday’s incident, China’s coast guard said in a statement that two Philippine vessels, ignoring repeated warnings, had “illegally entered the waters adjacent to Ren’ai Reef in the Nansha Islands without the approval of the Chinese government.”

It said Unaizah Mae 1 “made an unprofessional and dangerous sudden turn, intentionally ramming into China Coast Guard vessel 21556.” It said the Philippine side bore full responsibility.

Senate President Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. should “send the current Chinese Ambassador home” since “he has done nothing to address the continued attacks of his government on our troops and on our people.”

Speaker Martin G. Romualdez said China’s aggression against Filipino fisherfolk is “not only a violation of their rights but also an affront to human dignity.”

“To prevent the distribution of humanitarian support, as was the case in this incident, is not only illegal but also inhumane,” he said, demanding that Beijing “take immediate and concrete actions to cease these aggressive activities and uphold the principles of international law.”

“We will neither be intimidated, nor will we stand down in the face of these unwarranted and illegal actions,” said the House leader. The House of Representatives has taken steps to boost funding for agencies on the frontline of defending Philippine-occupied features in the South China Sea.

Don Mclain Gill, who teaches international relations at De La Salle University in Manila, said the Philippines has not been using water cannons to fight back because it wants to keep engaging China “while maintaining the moral high ground.”

“This also illustrates Manila’s consistent approach of being on the defensive while keeping channels open,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

Raymond Powell, a fellow at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, said China wants nothing more than for the Philippines to meekly go back to the negotiating table, “where China holds all the cards and can bargain from a position of strength.”

“The Philippines’ assertive transparency campaign has imposed severe reputational costs on China and rallied international opinion to its side — this is real leverage and should not be abandoned for empty promises,” he said in an X message.

“Beijing will continue to pursue its narrowly driven interests in the West Philippine Sea at the expense of our sovereignty and sovereign rights whether we securitize it or not at the domestic level,” Mr. Gill said.

In a related development, China and Japan accused each other of maritime incursions after a confrontation between their coast guards in waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea.

China’s coast guard said on Sunday a Japanese fishing boat and several patrol vessels intruded the previous day into waters around the tiny islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

The uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China.

China’s coast guard said in a statement it had taken necessary measures in accordance with the law to warn away the Japanese vessels.

Japan’s coast guard said on Saturday that two Chinese maritime patrol boats left Japan’s territorial waters around the islands after receiving warnings. It said its patrol vessels were protecting a Japanese fishing boat that had been approached by the Chinese ships.

Similar incidents occurred in November and October. — with Reuters