Philippine Officials Accuse China of "Intentional" Collisions

Philippine reporters watch from the deck of a Philippine Coast Guard cutter as a Chinese maritime militia trawler bumps into the cutter's port quarter, Oct. 22 (PCG)

Published Oct 23, 2023 10:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, the Philippine armed forces accused China's coast guard and maritime militia of "intentionally" colliding with two Philippine vessels near Second Thomas Shoal over the weekend. 

Early Sunday morning, the Philippine Coast Guard was escorting a resupply run to the military outpost on Second Thomas Shoal when a China Coast Guard cutter collided with a small Philippine supply boat in the convoy, according to the PCG. Later in the same mission, a Chinese maritime militia trawler "bumped" a PCG patrol vessel. Videos released by Philippine sources appear to show that both incidents involved light contact and resulted in little damage. No injuries were reported on either side. 

At a press conference Monday, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said that the collisions were "in blatant violation of international law," and that Chinese forces "harassed and intentionally hit” the Philippine vessels. He noted that this was the first time that the frequent confrontations at Second Thomas Shoal have resulted in a collision. 

“This is a serious escalation of the illegal activities conducted by the Chinese government in the West Philippine Sea,” Teodoro said, using the Philippine term for the nation's EEZ area in the South China Sea. “China has no legal right or authority to conduct law enforcement operations in our territorial waters and in our exclusive economic zone.”

The Chinese ambassador has been summoned to hear the Philippines' objections, he added, and called it "ironic" that China is hosting a conference this week on a code of safe conduct for the South China Sea. 

The U.S. Embassy in Manila issued a statement of support, reiterating America's defense treaty obligations with the Philippines. The message put blame squarely on Chinese forces' "dangerous and unlawful actions" for the collisions, but stopped short of suggesting that they were intentional. It noted that the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty extends to "armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels and aircraft - including those of its coast guard - anywhere in the South China Sea." 

China claims the vast majority of the South China Sea as its own territorial sea, citing a historical record of Chinese activities in the region. In 2016, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague found that China's sweeping claims were inconsistent with international law. China has disregarded the ruling.

In response to Sunday's incident, the Chinese foreign ministry blamed the Philippine government and the United States. Spokesperson Mao Ning told a press conference that the China Coast Guard was "lawfully blocking" the passage of Philippine supply boats; that Second Thomas Shoal is Chinese territory; that the Philippines was violating Chinese sovereignty by attempting to resupply the garrison on the shoal, which it has occupied since 1999. 

"China once again urges the Philippines to take China’s strong concerns seriously, honor its commitments, stop making provocations at sea, stop its dangerous moves and stop attacking and smearing China," Mao Ning said. 

In an ominous editorial published Monday, the strident Chinese government outlet Global Times compared the Philippines to "someone who has consumed a lot of cheap alcohol and is now 'drunk driving' in the South China Sea."

"China has no room for compromise or concession on territorial sovereignty issues. The Philippines should not entertain any illusions," Global Times warned in an unsigned editorial. "Regardless of what unrealistic expectations some individuals in Manila may have about [U.S. support], gambling in this manner will lead to consequences that Manila cannot bear."