A Philippine government ship has slipped past a Chinese coastguard vessel and brought food and fresh troops to a marooned navy ship used as a base by Filipino troops to bolster the country’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
Saturday’s incident was witnessed by journalists who were invited by the Philippines military to accompany the mission.
It was a rare close-up look at the tensions in the waters and the determination of all sides to press their claims.
China’s growing assertiveness is alarming smaller countries that have competing territorial claims and worrying the United States, which is neutral in the disputes but jockeying for influence with Beijing in the region.
About one hour away from Second Thomas Shoal, where the detachment is based, a Chinese coastguard ship marked “1141” twice crossed the bow of the smaller Philippine vessel in an attempt to stop it from proceeding. Another tailed the Filipino boat.
The Chinese radioed the Filipinos, telling them to stop. “You will take full responsibility for the consequences of your action,” the voice said in English.
“This is the Republic of the Philippines,” replied Philippine navy Lieutenant Ferdinand Gato, who was in charge of the supply mission. “We are here to provision the troops.”
The marines on board the supply boat waved the “V” for peace sign toward the Chinese vessel.
The Filipino captain manoeuvred his vessel to shallow waters where the Chinese ships couldn’t sail to reach the marooned vessel, BRP Sierra Madre, which has become an awkward symbol of Philippine sovereignty in the remote offshore territory.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that the Philippines’ action was to “hype up” its claim to the area and didn’t change the fact that it was China’s.
He said in a statement that the move wouldn’t affect China’s resolve to safeguard its territory.