China says Philippine boat's 'provocative action' caused near-crash

The latest row comes days before Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos is due to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss growing regional tensions.

April 28, 2023 07:36 pm | Updated 07:36 pm IST - Beijing

China said Friday that a near-collision in the South China Sea between a Chinese coast guard ship and a Philippine patrol vessel carrying journalists was caused by the latter's "premeditated and provocative action".

The near-miss off the Spratly Islands on Sunday was the latest in a long string of incidents between China and the Philippines in the contested waterway.

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, ignoring an international ruling that the assertion has no legal basis.

The latest row comes days before Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos is due to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss growing regional tensions.

AFP was one of several media outlets invited to join two Philippine Coast Guard boats on a six-day patrol of the waters, visiting a dozen islands and reefs.

Sunday's incident happened after the Philippine vessels approached Second Thomas Shoal, known in China as Ren'ai Jiao, in the Spratly archipelago.

As one boat, the BRP Malapascua, which was carrying Filipino journalists, neared the shoal, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel more than twice its size sailed into its path.

AFP journalists watched the incident from the other Philippine coast guard boat, which was less than a kilometre (0.6 miles) away.

The Malapascua's commanding officer said the Chinese ship came within 45 metres (50 yards) of his boat and only his quick actions avoided the steel-hulled vessels crashing into each other.

Asked about the incident on Friday at a regular press briefing, the Chinese foreign ministry said the Philippine boats had "intruded" without China's permission.

"The Chinese coast guard vessel safeguarded China's territorial sovereignty and maritime order, in accordance with the law, while taking timely measures to avoid the dangerous approach of Philippine vessels and to avoid a collision," said spokeswoman Mao Ning.

"It was a premeditated and provocative action for the Philippine vessel to barge into the waters of Ren'ai Jiao with journalists on board, the aim was to deliberately find fault and take the opportunity to hype up the incident," she added.

Ms. Mao said the crew of the Chinese vessel had acted "professionally and with restraint".

But on Friday Ms. Mao's Philippine counterpart Teresita Daza accused them of putting the Malapascua's crew in "serious danger", and insisted the Philippines would continue to conduct patrols in its "own waters".

"Routine patrols in our own waters can neither be premeditated nor provocative," Ms. Daza said.

"It is a legal right that we exercised and will continue to exercise."

Second Thomas Shoal is about 200 kilometres from the Philippine island of Palawan and more than 1,000 kilometres from China's nearest major landmass of Hainan island.

The Philippine Coast Guard vessels were shadowed by Chinese navy and coast guard ships, and ordered to leave the waters several times during the trip with journalists.

The commanding officer of the Malapascua, Rodel Hernandez, told AFP Chinese boats routinely blocked his and other Philippine coast guard ships during their patrols near the shoal.

But Sunday was the "closest" he had seen vessels from the rival fleets come to a collision, he said.

The Philippine Coast Guard would "continue to keep watch over each square inch of Philippine territory", said Commodore Jay Tarriela, the agency's spokesman for the West Philippine Sea.

The near-miss came just a day after Mr. Marcos hosted Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang for talks in Manila aimed at defusing tensions in the waterway.

Since taking office last June, Mr. Marcos has insisted he will not let China trample on the Philippines' rights in the sea -- in contrast to his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte who was reluctant to criticise Beijing.

Mr. Marcos has meanwhile gravitated towards the Philippines' traditional ally, the United States, as he seeks to strengthen their defence ties.

This shift has alarmed China, which has accused Washington of trying to drive a wedge between Beijing and Manila.

Mr. Marcos said Monday he would discuss with Biden the "need to tone down the rhetoric" over the South China Sea, Taiwan and North Korea.

"The discussion is heating up, some harsh words are being exchanged and we are worried," Mr. Marcos told a Philippine broadcaster.

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