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Escalation: Chinese Vessel Targets Philippine Boats with Water Cannon

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On a Saturday in the South China Sea, an event ignited international concerns that could potentially reshape maritime dynamics in the region. A Chinese Coast Guard ship, significantly larger in size, unleashed torrents of water from a water cannon onto a smaller Philippine vessel. This boat, despite its size, carried a vital mission: delivering supplies to a Philippine marine garrison located on Second Thomas Shoal, a region Manila considers within its exclusive economic zone. Notably, China refers to this shoal as the Renai Reef, and controversially stakes a claim on it as part of its sovereign territory.

A captured video clearly shows the Philippine boat getting drenched, while other photos depict the Chinese vessel inching dangerously close to the Philippine Coast Guard ships escorting the resupply mission. This aggressive behavior didn’t sit well with the Philippine Coast Guard. “The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) strongly condemns the China Coast Guard’s (CCG) dangerous maneuvers and illegal use of water cannons against PCG vessels,” they declared in an official statement on their Facebook page.

The subsequent international reaction was swift and unified in its denouncement. By Sunday, Washington, a longtime ally of Manila, expressed strong disapproval of the Chinese actions. A spokesperson for the US State Department, Matthew Miller, was quoted as saying, “The United States reaffirms an armed attack on Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces… would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Countries like Australia, Japan, and Germany soon echoed Washington’s sentiment, terming the Chinese actions as “dangerous” and “destabilizing.” Even the Canadian Embassy in Manila spoke out, stating Ottawa “unreservedly condemns the dangerous and provocative actions taken by the Chinese Coast Guard.”

It wasn’t just the international community that voiced its concerns. Within the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. reported that a diplomatic complaint, complete with photographic evidence of the incident, was handed to the Chinese ambassador in Manila. Further emphasizing the gravity of the situation, the Philippine Foreign Ministry and armed forces collaborated for a press conference. Here, they branded China’s use of water cannons as a “dangerous and illegal practice,” stating that it endangers Filipino crew members and breaches international humanitarian laws.

At the heart of this tension lies a longstanding dispute surrounding the South China Sea. China asserts “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly the entire vast region, including areas situated hundreds of miles from its mainland. Such claims have often put it at odds with neighboring countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Highlighting the contested nature of this territory, Manila refers to part of the region as the West Philippine Sea.

In an effort to underscore its territorial claim, Manila took a bold step in 1999, grounding a navy transport ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, on Second Thomas Shoal. This move was bolstered by a 2016 ruling from the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which declared that China had no legal basis for claiming most of the South China Sea. China, however, has consistently dismissed this ruling.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, remarked on the escalating tensions, “Clearly this latest incident represents an escalation.” Philippine Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano added a concerning perspective, saying to CNN Philippines, “If something goes wrong, it can really cause instability in the region.”

Despite the mounting international pressure, China remains resolute in its stance. Gan Yu, a spokesperson for the China Coast Guard, argued that Filipino vessels had “illegally intruded” near the Renai Reef. Furthermore, a statement from China’s coast guard accused Manila of attempting a “permanent occupation” of what China considers its territory. Their justification for using water cannons was framed as a measure to prevent collisions after issuing multiple warnings.

Jeffrey Ordaniel, a maritime security expert, suggested that China might continue its “gray zone” tactics, aggressive actions that stop just short of inciting war. Similarly, Blake Herzinger, from the United States Studies Center in Australia, said Manila should take actions beyond just rallying international support. Koh hinted that joint patrols in the South China Sea by the US and Philippines could be a future step.

The situation’s seriousness was also underlined by the U.S. State Department, which said, “By impeding necessary provisions from reaching the Filipino servicemembers stationed at Second Thomas shoal, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has also undertaken unwarranted interference in lawful Philippine maritime operations.”

China’s belligerence and ignoring of international law is telling. They want to control the entire China sea and have given notice that they will not be kind to people who stand in their way. And it will work too. Other countries will be wary of asserting territorial rights, if confronted with Chinese warships.

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