An international row is growing between the Philippines, the US and China over a rusting ship that has been turned into a crucial military outpost in the South China Sea.
The dilapidated second world war-era ship was deliberately run aground on a tiny reef in the South China Sea in 1999 by the Philippines, and a small contingent of troops continue to stay on board to stake the country’s claim in the highly disputed water.
The strategically important South China Sea is subject to competing territorial claims by China and south-east Asian countries, and is considered a potential flashpoint.
Tensions have intensified under the current Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, with the country increasingly accusing China of aggression and pursuing closer ties with the US, with which it has a mutual defence treaty.
On Saturday, China provoked condemnation from the Philippines, the US, the EU, France, Japan and Australia after its coastguard directed water cannon at a Philippine coastguard vessel. The Philippines was trying to deliver food, water, fuel and other supplies to its troops stationed in the grounded ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
China has since repeated its demands for the rusting ship to be removed, while China’s embassy in Manila has accused Washington of “inciting and supporting the Philippines attempts to overhaul and reinforce” BRP Sierra Madre, and of rallying its allies “to persistently sensationalise the South China Sea issue”.
“I would also like to stress that the South China Sea is not a hunting ground for countries outside the region to meddle with, sow discord and provoke conflicts,” the embassy said.
Its foreign ministry also accused the US of threatening China with its mutual defence treaty with the Philippines.
“The US has been brazenly bolstering the Philippines as it infringes upon China’s sovereignty but those moves will not succeed,” a ministry spokesperson said.
The US, while not a claimant in the dispute, considers the South China Sea crucial to its national interests, and has a mutual defence treaty with the Philippines.
On Tuesday, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, underlined the “ironclad nature of the US-Philippines alliance” in a call with his counterpart, the Philippine secretary of national defence, Gilberto Teodoro Jr.
Austin reaffirmed that the treaty between the two countries – under which the US would defend the Philippines if its public vessels and forces were subjected to an armed attack – extended to those of the coastguard in the South China Sea.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including Second Thomas Shoal, the submerged reef where the Sierra Madre is run aground, though its sweeping claims were found to have no legal basis by an international tribunal in The Hague in 2016.
China’s foreign ministry on Tuesday repeated its rejections of the ruling. “The South China Sea arbitration was a pure political drama staged in the name of the law with the US pulling strings behind the scenes,” it said.
Manila has frequently accused the Chinese coastguard of blocking its resupply missions to its troops on the Sierra Madre.
In February the Philippine coastguard accused its Chinese counterpart of directing a “military grade” laser at one of its vessels as it tried to support a navy mission to bring food and supplies to its troops at Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines, and which lies within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Wu Qian, a spokesperson for China’s ministry of national defence said on Tuesday its coastguard had blocked the Philippine ship “in accordance with the law and took warning law enforcement measures”.
Analysts have said Chinese authorities have historically differentiated between Philippine attempts to resupply to ship with humanitarian goods, and with construction or military materials.
The Chinese ministry suggested it had targeted only Philippine ships carrying construction materials to the Sierra Madre.
China has said the latest water cannon incident was a “warning” and that it had exercised “rational restraint” at all times. It has also reiterated its demands for the Philippines to tow away the grounded Sierra Madre, saying the Philippines has previously promised to remove it – a claim denied by officials in Manila.
The Philippine foreign ministry said the “permanent station” on Second Thomas Shoal was in response to China’s “illegal occupation” of nearby Mischief Reef in 1995.
“The deployment of a Philippine military station in its own areas of jurisdiction is an inherent right of the Philippines and does not violate any laws,” it added.
The Philippines national security council spokesperson, Jonathan Malaya, said the country would “never abandon Ayungin Shoal”.
Source: The Guardian