Tensions flare in South China sea as Beijing blocks rival’s key mission

Chinese ships appear to block Filipino supply boats

Chinese vessels obstructed Filipino supply boats en route to an outpost in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The incident unfolded on Wednesday as two Philippine Coast Guard ships, one of which carried BBC reporters, and two small commercial boats were en route to the Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands.

The Filipino convoy was confronted by a massive ship labelled as the Chinese Coast Guard, which dwarfed the Filipino commercial boats five times over.

The encounter between the two sides lasted for several hours, marking a concerning episode in the ongoing territorial disputes.

The clash comes in the wake of heightened tensions between Manila and Beijing following an incident where the Philippines coast guard dismantled China’s barriers in disputed waters the previous month.

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The Philippines regularly resupplies its outpost in the Second Thomas Shoal, asserting its economic rights in the area, which is abundant in both fish and mineral resources.

The atoll, located in the Spratly Islands, is at the centre of territorial claims, with China asserting its control over nearly the entire South China Sea, a claim contested by neighbouring countries, including the Philippines.

The incident occurred on the second day of a three-day mission to the Second Thomas Shoal, amid rough seas due to an oncoming typhoon and the seasonal monsoon. At dawn, the Filipino convoy was met by the Chinese Coast Guard, accompanied by two blue militia vessels bearing Chinese markings.

The standoff intensified when the Chinese ships issued radio warnings, demanding that the Filipinos leave the area. Refusing to back down, the Philippine ships found themselves encircled by the Chinese vessels, preventing their progress. The smaller Filipino commercial ships managed to navigate through the blockade due to their size, a tactic that had been successful in recent encounters.

However, the larger Philippine Coast Guard ships were unable to bypass the Chinese blockade, coming within a few metres of the imposing vessels.

Crews from both sides took photographs of each other, capturing the tense moment. Additionally, a Philippine military plane was observed flying overhead.

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As night fell, the Philippine ships decided to turn back after confirming the safe delivery of supplies on the commercial ships.

They retreated from the area, ensuring their crew’s safety amid the escalating standoff. All four vessels successfully returned to port, located several hours’ drive north of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, on Thursday.

China has been previously accused of employing aggressive tactics, including firing water cannons and shining lasers on Philippine ships, to assert dominance in the disputed region. Furthermore, Beijing has been alleged to have deployed militia ships to enhance its coast guard patrols in the contested sea.

This latest incident adds to the growing tensions between China and the Philippines, a nation that has recently strengthened its military ties with the United States, Beijing’s primary competitor for influence in the region.

The Chinese coast guard condemned the Filipino resupply mission, claiming that the Philippines entered what it refers to as the Nansha Islands without permission, whereas the Philippines identifies it as Ayungin Shoal, named after a local delicacy, the small Ayungin fish.

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