China Coast Guard Ships Fire Water Cannons at Philippine Vessels

Chinese government ships fired water cannons at boats delivering food supplies to a Philippine-controlled island in the South China Sea, Manila said in a statement on Thursday, describing the move as illegal and telling Beijing to "back off."

The latest maritime clash in the contested waters took place in the early hours of Tuesday, when three China Coast Guard vessels "blocked and water cannoned" two Philippine supply boats en route to Second Thomas Shoal, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. of the Philippines said in a statement published online.

Locsin said "no one was hurt," but the boats were forced to abort their mission to resupply a small contingent of the Philippine Marine Corps stationed on the atoll, which the Philippines calls Ayungin Shoal and has occupied since 1999. The island is about 105 nautical miles off Palawan in the West Philippine Sea, Manila's term for the eastern portion of the South China Sea that falls within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

China Fires Water Cannons At Philippine Boats
A China Coast Guard ship and a Philippine supply boat engage in a standoff as the Philippine boat attempts to reach Second Thomas Shoal, a remote South China Sea reef claimed by both countries, on March 29, 2014. JAY DIRECTO/AFP via Getty Images

In his statement, Locsin condemned "in the strongest terms" the actions by the Chinese coast guard. He also warned Beijing that Manila had the backing of the United States when it came to relevant disputes in the South China Sea, which China claims in almost its entirety as part of its "nine-dash line."

"I reminded China that a public vessel is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty," Locsin wrote. Since taking office in January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly reaffirmed American defense commitments to the Philippines on at least three occasions, most recently in September. The U.S. also supports the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which rejected China's sweeping claims to every feature in the energy-rich sea.

"The acts of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels are illegal. China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off," Locsin added. A failure to comply, he said, would threaten the "special relationship" between the two countries.

In a video shared on social media that purports to show the incident, streams of pressurized water can be seen hitting the cabin of one of the Philippine supply boats during Tuesday's incident within the Spratly Islands archipelago.

The video has been credited to Hermogenes Esperon, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's national security adviser,

It was the most direct clash involving vessels from both nations for nearly a decade. Philippine supply boats have also had to run the gauntlet of Chinese coast guard vessels to reach Second Thomas Shoal in the past.

In a similar standoff, China took control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after effectively blockading Philippine vessels and imposing indirect economic sanctions on Manila for its protests. Chinese ships, including those of its navy, maintain a presence around the banks to this day.

The U.S. did not intervene, in part triggering Manila's decision to bring Philippines v. China to The Hague.