Philippines accuses China of firing water cannon at its boats, warns Beijing to 'back off'

Tensions over the resource-rich seas spiked this year after hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected at Whitsun Reef, which is also in the Spratly archipelago

Agence France-Presse November 18, 2021 15:51:36 IST

Manila: The Philippines on Thursday accused Chinese Coast Guard vessels of firing water cannon at boats delivering supplies to Filipino marines in the disputed South China Sea, and ordered Beijing to "back off".

Foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin said he had expressed "outrage, condemnation and protest" to Beijing over the incident, which he said happened Tuesday as the Philippine boats were travelling to Second Thomas Shoal in the contested Spratly Islands.

"Fortunately, no one was hurt; but our boats had to abort their resupply mission," Locsin said in a statement on Twitter, describing the three Chinese vessels' acts of blocking and using water cannon as "illegal".

Locsin described the Philippine boats as "public", suggesting they were civilian vessels, and said they were covered by a mutual defence pact with the United States.

"China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas," he added. "They must take heed and back off."

Tensions over the resource-rich seas spiked this year after hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected at Whitsun Reef, which is also in the Spratly archipelago.

China claims almost all of the sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Beijing has ignored a 2016 ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that its historical claim over most of the sea to be without basis.

After China occupied Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s, the Philippines marooned a derelict navy vessel atop the nearby Second Thomas Shoal to assert Manila's territorial claim. Members of the Philippine Marines are based there.

Locsin said the shoal was within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone, and warned China's "failure to exercise self-restraint threatens the special relationship" between the two countries.

"We do not ask permission to do what we need to do in our territory," he said.

The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte has sought to pivot away from the United States, the Philippines' former colonial master, towards China since taking power in 2016 and has appeared reluctant to confront Beijing.

But facing growing domestic pressure to take a harder line, Duterte has insisted Philippine sovereignty over the waters is not negotiable.

In July, Duterte walked back on a decision to axe a key military deal, the Visiting Forces Agreement, with the United States during a visit by Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin.

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