The Philippines has accused China of ‘harassment’ after a Chinese navy ship and dozens of militia vessels surrounded a contested Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea, as territorial tensions mount in the area.
The Coast Guard said 42 vessels, believed to be crewed by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were seen ‘loitering’ in the vicinity of Thitu island on Saturday, while a Chinese navy vessel and coast guard ship were observed ‘slowly loitering’ in the surrounding waters.
Thitu in the Spratly island chain is Manila’s biggest and most strategically important outpost in the South China Sea, a body of water largely claimed by Beijing where several countries have conflicting territorial claims.
Tensions between the Philippines and China over claims to the South China Sea have intensified in recent weeks after Washington and Manila announced plans to expand America’s military presence in the Southeast Asian nation.
And China has now responded by sending 42 Chinese militia vessels, including a Navy ship and a Coast Guard vessel, to Thitu island in a move that the Philippines has slammed as ‘harassment’. Commodore Jay Tarriela, a coast guard spokesperson, said the vessels were still in the area on Monday, adding ‘this is a form of harassment’.
The Philippines has accused China of ‘harassment’ after a Chinese navy ship and dozens of Chinese maritime militia vessels (CMMVs) (pictured) surrounded a contested Philippine-occupied in the South China Sea, as territorial tensions mount in the area
The Philippines Coast Guard said a Chinese navy vessel and a coast guard ship (pictured) were observed ‘slowly loitering’ in the surrounding waters
The Coast Guard said 42 vessels, believed to be crewed by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were seen ‘loitering’ in the vicinity of Thitu island (pictured)
China claims nearly all the oil and resource-rich waters of the South China Sea and has ignored counter-claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia
Experts say China’s fishing fleet and coast guard are central to its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, maintaining a constant presence that complicates fishing and offshore energy activities by other coastal states.
‘Their continuing unauthorised presence is clearly inconsistent with the right of innocent passage and a blatant violation of the Philippines’ territorial integrity,’ the coast guard said in a statement.
Locally known as Pag-asa, Thitu lies about 300 miles west of the western Philippine province of Palawan. Home to over 400 people, including military and law enforcement personnel, the island is used by Manila to maintain its territorial claim.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said two weeks ago the Philippines ‘will not lose an inch’ of territory as the Southeast Asian protested China’s ‘aggressive activities’ in the sea.
Marcos last month summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain about the intensity and frequency of China’s actions in the South China Sea.
Indeed, the Philippines accused a Chinese coast guard ship of hitting a Philippine coast guard vessel with a military-grade laser.
Manila said the laser temporarily blinded some of its crew in the disputed South China Sea, calling it a ‘blatant’ violation of Manila’s sovereign rights.
The Chinese ship also manoeuvred dangerously close, about 450 feet, to block the Philippine patrol vessel BRP Malapascua from approaching Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef that has been occupied by Philippine forces, on Feb. 6, the Philippine coast guard said in a statement.
The Philippines has filed 77 complaints against China’s activities in the sea, including a claim that a Chinese coast guard ship on Feb. 6 directed a “military-grade laser” at one a Philippine coast guard ship on a supply mission.
China claims sovereignty over the Spratlys, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have competing claims for some or all of the islands.
The Philippines has accused China of ‘harassment’ after a Chinese navy ship and dozens of militia vessels surrounded a contested Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea. Pictured: A file image of a Chinese navy ship
A file image of a Chinese coast guard vessel in the South China sea
Locally known as Pag-asa, Thitu island (pictured) lies about 300 miles west of the western Philippine province of Palawan
Thitu in the Spratly island chain is Manila’s biggest and most strategically important outpost in the South China Sea, a body of water largely claimed by Beijing where several countries have conflicting territorial claims
The Philippines accused a Chinese coast guard ship of hitting a Philippine coast guard vessel with a military-grade laser on February 6. Pictured: An image released by the Philippine coast guard showing a green light light coming from the Chinese vessel
And much to China’s fury, the US and the Philippines announced that rotating batches of American forces would be granted access to four more Philippine military camps aside from five other local bases.
Manila-based political scientist Andrea Chloe Wong said the location of the Philippine camps would give the U.S. military the presence it would need to be a “strong deterrent against Chinese aggression” in the South China Sea.
Tensions have also been growing in recent months and years over China’s plans to launch an invasion of Taiwan – which it sees as its own – in the coming years. The US has said its forced would defend the island in the event of an invasion.
China claims the South China Sea virtually in its entirety, putting it on a collision course with other claimants.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang today warned that China and America are heading for a ‘catastrophic’ conflict if Washington ‘continues to speed down the wrong path’.
Qin Gang lashed out at the US over deteriorating bilateral relations and Washington’s support for Taiwan, while praising Beijing’s growing ties to Moscow which he said ‘set an example for global foreign relations’.
He also insinuated that America was undermining efforts for peace in Ukraine in order to extend the conflict for its own benefit, amid reports that China is considering sending arms to Russia to help with Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion.
In his wide-ranging press conference, he dismissed warnings from Western countries that China may supply Russia with arms, saying it would not accept ‘blame-shifting, sanctions, suppression and threats’ targeting Beijing.
His comments came as President Xi Jinping condemned what he branded an American-led ‘suppression of China’, as he urged the country’s private sector to boost innovation and become more self-reliant.
‘Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, blockade and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented grave challenges to our nation’s development,’ Xi was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
In the face of that, China must ‘remain calm, maintain concentration, strive for progress while maintaining stability, take active actions, unite as one, and dare to fight,’ he said.
U.S. officials have grown increasingly worried about China’s expansive political and economic goals and the possibility of war over Taiwan – and many officials in Washington have called for the U.S. to make a bigger effort to counter Chinese influence abroad.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (pictured) lashed out Tuesday at the US over deteriorating bilateral relations and Washington’s support for Taiwan. He also insinuated that America was undermining efforts for peace in Ukraine in order to extend the conflict for its own benefit
In recent weeks, concerns about Chinese spying on the U.S. and Beijing’s influence campaigns there have drawn particular concern, and officials from the two countries have frequently traded accusations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned visit to Beijing after Washington shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew over American territory. The massive balloon and its payload, including electronics and optics, have been recovered from the ocean floor and are being analyzed by the FBI.
Then last week, China responded with indignation when U.S. officials raised the issue again of whether the COVID-19 pandemic began with a lab leak. The Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. of ‘politicizing the issue’ in an attempt to discredit China.
And the two countries have traded angry words over Taiwan as China has stepped up its diplomatic isolation and military harassment of the self-governing island democracy that it claims as its own territory.
Qin – who briefly served as ambassador to Washington and gained a reputation for his cutting condemnations of China’s critics when he was Foreign Ministry spokesman – touched on all these topics on Tuesday.
He criticized Washington for shooting down the balloon, repeating claims that its appearance in U.S. skies was an accident.
‘In this case the United States’ perception and views of China are seriously distorted. It regards China as its primary rival and the most consequential geopolitical challenge,’ Qin said. ‘This is like the first button in a shirt being put wrong and the result is that the U.S.-China policy has entirely deviated from the rational and sound track.’
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a session of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, March 7
On Taiwan, Qin called the issue the first red line that must not be crossed. China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. While the U.S. does not advocate for either unification or Taiwan’s formal independence, Washington is obligated by federal law to see that the island has the means to defend itself if attacked.
‘The U.S. has unshakable responsibility for causing the Taiwan question,’ he said, accusing the U.S. of ‘disrespecting China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ by offering the island political backing and furnishing it with defensive weapons in response to Beijing’s threat to use force to bring it under Chinese control.
‘Why does the U.S. ask China not to provide weapons to Russia, while it keeps selling arms to Taiwan?’ Qin asked.
In Taipei, Taiwan’s Defense Minister said the armed forces weren’t seeking outright conflict with China’s military, but nor would they back away in the event of Chinese aircraft or ships entering Taiwanese coastal seas or airspace.
‘It is the nation’s armed forces’ duty to mount an appropriate response,’ Chiu Kuo-cheng told legislators.
Beijing has also accused the West of ‘fanning the flames’ by providing Ukraine with weaponry to fend off the Russian invasion. China says it has a neutral stance in the war, but has also said it has a ‘no-limits friendship’ with Russia and has refused to criticize Moscow’s invasion – or even refer to it as an invasion.
A Chinese call for a cease-fire in Ukraine that has drawn praise from Russia but dismissals from the West has done nothing to lessen tensions as U.S. officials have repeatedly accused China of considering providing weapons to Moscow for use in the war.
‘Efforts for peace talks have been repeatedly undermined. There seems to be an invisible hand pushing for the protraction and escalation of the conflict and using the Ukraine crisis to serve a certain geopolitical agenda,’ Qin said.
Qin’s news conference came two days after the opening of the yearly meeting of the National People’s Congress, a mostly ceremonial body assembled to approve government reports and, this year, a new slate of top-level appointments. That is expected to include a norm-breaking third five-year term as president for Xi, who has eliminated all term limits to allow him to rule indefinitely.