The crew of a Philippine coastguard boat anxiously watches as the formidable Chinese vessel approaches and cuts off its path, coming within meters of a collision in a vast stretch of open water in the South China Sea.
The captain of the BRP Sindangan shuts down the engine and engages the reverse gear. The Chinese Coast Guard issues a megaphone warning to depart, while the Philippine crew closely monitors the radar, which shows the two vessels side by side.
“We are acting by international and Philippine national laws,” the crew member replies.
“A request that you stay away from our passage.
Tense encounters like this one, about 100 miles (185 km) from the Philippines and witnessed by a Reuters journalist, are becoming more common in Asia’s most disputed waters as China asserts its claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
China rules the waves here, and the Philippine mission is emblematic of a wider battle between Beijing and neighbors determined to assert sovereign rights in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).
A Philippine Coast Guard ship is escorting smaller boats to Second Thomas Shoal carrying supplies for a handful of soldiers posted as a makeshift crew aboard the Sierra Madre, a World War II naval vessel that was intentionally grounded on a reef a quarter of a century ago.
Their constant presence aboard the rusting ship has angered China and turned the Second Thomas Shoal into a strategic battleground, with Beijing deploying its more modern coast guard ships and clusters of fishing boats up to 620 miles (1,150 km) from the Chinese coast.
Just 800 meters away, the Sindangan will be followed by a gray naval vessel, joining four Chinese coast guard vessels and five other boats suspected by the Philippines of militia.
The Sindangan hangs back as the supply boats proceed to complete the remaining nine miles (17 km) to reach the soldiers aboard the Sierra Madre.
China condemned the supply mission, saying Philippine vessels “intruded” into its waters in the Spratly Islands without its permission. It had earlier ordered the Philippines to tow the grounded ship away from the atoll.
The stakes are high if this game on the brink turns into a miscalculation in the South China Sea.
Relations between the Philippines and China have further soured this year amid a heightened military confrontation between Manila and Washington, which Beijing says threatens regional tensions.
The Philippines and the United States have a mutual defense treaty, and the Pentagon made clear in May that it would protect the Philippines if its coast guard was attacked “anywhere in the South China Sea.”
Jay Tarriela of the Philippine Coast Guard said his country had the right to operate freely in its exclusive economic zone and accused China of violating international law.
“They have carried out dangerous maneuvers and blocking operations to prevent our routine operations in securing supplies for our military units,” he told reporters.
Image Source: Daily Express