Philippines Warns China of U.S. Defense Treaty After Water Cannon Fired at Filipino Boats

Chinese coast guard ships used water cannons to shoot a powerful stream of water at two Philippine boats carrying supplies to a highly disputed shoal in the South China Sea, prompting Philippine officials to warn the Chinese about their mutual defense treaty with the United States.

Second Thomas Shoal, near the Philippine province of Palawan, is a strategic waterway that many countries have tried to claim. The Associated Press reported that China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have overlapping claims.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. told AP no one was hurt in the incident Tuesday, but the two ships had to abandon their mission of bringing food to forces occupying the shoal.

The Philippine government expressed to China "our outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident," Locsin said, adding that "this failure to exercise self-restraint threatens the special relationship between the Philippines and China."

However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told AP that the coast guard was trying to uphold Chinese sovereignty, insisting that the Philippine ships had entered Chinese waters without permission.

While the U.S. has no claim to the waterway, military forces have helped patrol the area in the past. President Joe Biden previously assured the Philippines that the U.S. will uphold the two nations' Mutual Defense Treaty.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

China, coast guard, Philippines
Chinese coast guard ships blocked and used water cannons on two Philippine supply boats heading to a disputed shoal occupied by Filipino marines in the South China Sea, provoking an angry protest against China and a warning that its vessels are covered under a mutual defense treaty with the U.S., Manila’s top diplomat said Thursday. Above, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel patrols in the South China Sea in April of 2021. Philippine Coast Guard via AP

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has transformed seven shoals into missile-protected island bases to cement its assertions, ratcheting up tensions and alarming rival claimants and Western governments led by the U.S.

Locsin said in a tweet that the three Chinese coast guard ships' actions were illegal and urged them "to take heed and back off."

The Philippines plans to deploy coast guard and Bureau of Fisheries vessels instead of navy ships to back up its forces and enforce its fishing laws at Second Thomas Shoal, which Filipinos call Ayungin and China refers to as the Ren'ai reef, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said.

The number of Chinese surveillance ships has increased in recent weeks in the far-flung shoal and also around Thitu, a larger Philippine-occupied island in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea's most hotly contested area, he said.

Philippine forces won't be deterred from traveling again to the shoal following the incident, he said.

"We will continue the resupply and we do not have to ask the permission of anybody because that is within our territory," Esperon said.

The Philippine military deliberately ran aground a World War II-era warship, the BRP Sierra Madre, at the submerged shoal in 1999 to fortify its claim and provide a shelter to a small contingent of Filipino marines.

The Sierra Madre is now effectively a rusty shipwreck but the Philippine military has not decommissioned it. That makes the ship an extension of the government and means any attack on the ship is tantamount to an assault against the Philippines.

In 2014, the Philippine military invited more than a dozen journalists, including from The Associated Press, on a resupply mission to the shoal in a bid to draw global attention to what Philippine officials have called China's bullying tactics.

Two Chinese coast guard ships then tried to block the slow-moving, military-chartered vessel carrying the journalists, with one cutting dangerously through the Philippine ship's path twice. The Chinese coast guard warned the Philippine vessel by radio to turn back, saying it was illegally venturing into Chinese territory.

The Chinese ships blew their horns intimidatingly, but the boat managed to maneuver toward the Sierra Madre through shallow waters dotted with rocky coral outcrops, preventing the Chinese ship from pursuing.

Washington has no claims in the busy waterway but has patrolled the region with its Navy ships and aircraft to assure its allies, including the Philippines, and protect freedom of navigation and overflight. China has repeatedly warned the U.S. to stay away from the disputed waters and not meddle in what it says is a regional issue.

Philippines, Sierra Madre, ship
Dilapidated Philippine Navy ship LT 57 (Sierra Madre) stays at Second Thomas Shoal to try to keep its place in a highly disputed waterway. Above, the ship with Philippine troops onboard is anchored off Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, on March 30, 2014, in the South China Sea. Bullit Marquez, File/AP Photo

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