Philippine Supply Boats Defy Chinese Blockade, Escalating South China Sea Crisis

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In a bold move escalating the simmering crisis in the South China Sea, a pair of Philippine supply boats circumvented a Chinese coast guard blockade on Wednesday. This event signifies an enduring conflict near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, a potential spark triggering a major security debacle possibly involving the United States.

Escorting the pair of supply boats were two Philippine coast guard ships. The opacity of the situation restricts accurate assessment of their passage towards the Second Thomas Shoal, a marine post long held by a handful of Filipino marines on the obsolete but functional warship, the BRP Sierra Madre.

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The disputed shoal is also claimed by China, which has encircled it with its own coast guard vessels and civilian maritime forces. These measures are aimed at precluding the delivery of construction supplies by the Philippines to the Sierra Madre, which Beijing perceives as a move to fortify the dilapidated vessel into a permanent territorial outpost.

A report from a Philippine government agency explained, “Despite the obstructing Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels, the Philippine boats managed to deliver supplies to the soldiers stationed at the shoal.” The statement, released on Wednesday, adds that these missions are part of regular operations compliant with national and international law, serving to guarantee the safety and wellbeing of Philippine personnel.

Refraining from detailing specific actions by the Chinese, the inter-agency body reiterated its unease about risky maneuvers that flirt with possible collisions and violate safety protocols at sea.

In rebuffing the Philippines, the Chinese coast guard issued a statement warning against the unapproved transit of Philippine vessels into their waters, carrying unauthorized construction materials. They avowed their firm stance against these activities, monitoring the vessels throughout.

This recent altercation stokes the fiery disputes over territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea, which is notorious as one of the world’s busiest maritime routes. The territorial conflicts, involving numerous Asian nations and underpinned by the superpower rivalry between China and the U.S., are seen as potential flashpoints for an Asian crisis.

In early August, a Chinese coast guard vessel sprayed water cannons on a Philippine supply boat – a brazen move caught on camera, sparking outrage from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and leading to a strongly worded protest against China.

The U.S. response was to reassert its commitment to defending the Philippines, an age-old Asia-Pacific ally, against any armed attack, including in the contentious South China Sea. This elicited an accusation from Beijing, which perceived Washington’s stance as a threat, and reiterated warnings against U.S. involvement in the territorial disputes.

Later in August, two Philippine boats successfully navigated past the Chinese blockade to deliver supplies to their forces at the Second Thomas shoal, escorted by Philippine coast guard vessels. However, these escorts were hindered from approaching the shoal by their Chinese counterparts, leading to a standoff of over three hours, with a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft offering support from above.

Philippine Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro expressed concern over China’s actions at sea and affirmed the government’s readiness to address any potential emergencies, including possible Chinese-Philippine ship collisions.

Fostering transparency on the issue, the Philippine coast guard included journalists across several trips, aimed at shedding light on China’s behavior in the South China Sea.

In 2016, Beijing’s claims over most of the South China Sea were refuted by an arbitration under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Despite this, China rebuffed the ruling as a sham, refusing to acknowledge it to this day.