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Chinese-Philippine Maritime Collision Injures 4, Sparking Tensions in Contested South China Sea

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: March 5, 2024
Philippine navy ship BRP Antonio Luna (FF-151) launches bullfighter chaff decoys during a navy's capability demonstration, witnessed by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (not pictured) aboard the Philippine navy ship BRP Davao del Sur, a Tarlac-class landing platform dock, off Zambales, facing the South China Sea on May 19, 2023. (Image: ALI VICOY / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

On March 5, a clash involving Chinese and Philippine coast guard vessels resulted in injuries to at least four Filipino crew members. The confrontation occurred in the highly contested waters of the South China Sea where Southeast Asian leaders are gathering in Melbourne, Australia to discuss Beijing’s aggressive maritime conduct. 

The Philippine officials reported that Chinese coast guard ships — accompanied by other vessels — blocked and executed hazardous maneuvers against their coast guard and supply vessels near the contested Second Thomas Shoal. This led to minor collisions with two of the Philippine vessels, which caused not only structural damage but also endangered the lives of the crew onboard.

In contrast, the Chinese coast guard’s statement revealed a different perspective, claiming that the Philippine ships had “illegally entered” its waters and accused the crew of ramming a Chinese vessel. 

‘Unprovoked acts of coercion’

The Philippine government task force on territorial disputes described the Chinese actions as “another attempt to illegally impede or obstruct a routine resupply and rotation mission.” They went further to condemn “China’s latest unprovoked acts of coercion and dangerous maneuvers,” which they claimed, “put the lives of our people at risk and caused actual injury to Filipinos.”

A Philippine coast guard ship moves past a Chinese coast guard ship in the South China Sea on April 23, 2023. (Image: Ted ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila responded by going one step further and summoning China’s deputy ambassador to convey a protest against the actions of the Chinese coast guard, which it deemed unacceptable. 

“The Philippines demands that Chinese vessels leave the vicinity of Ayungin shoal immediately,” a statement by the department said, using the Filipino name for the contested shoal. 

The incident is part of a long-standing dispute over the Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines has stationed a marine and navy contingent aboard the BRP Sierra Madre — a marooned warship that’s been sitting there since the late 1990s. 

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But China, which claims to be asserting its rightful ownership of the area, has encircled the atoll with its own ships — intensifying a standoff that has persisted for decades. The situation has not only heightened tensions between China and the Philippines, but has also drawn international concern from other countries in the region that share these waters.

This photo taken on April 23, 2023 shows a Chinese coast guard ship patrolling as seen from Philippine coast guard vessel BRP Malabrigo at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea. On May 29, a Chinese vessel was detained by the Malaysian Coastguard under suspicion of attempting to salvage World War II shipwrecks. (Image: TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning also hit back by accusing the Philippines of taking “provocative actions” and undermining China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in the area. “China has taken necessary measures in accordance with the laws to safeguard its sovereignty and interests,” said Mao, adding, “There is no so-called Chinese harassment of the Philippine ships.”

Heightened tensions

Other countries, including the U.S., Australia, and Japan have expressed apprehension and concern over Beijing’s actions and repeated maritime offenses. U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller articulated the broader implications during a daily briefing, stating, “the latest incidents demonstrated China’s reckless disregard for the safety of Filipinos and also for international law,” and criticized China for interfering with “lawful Philippine maritime operations.”

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (R) shakes hands with Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ahead of the family photo during the 50th ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne on March 5, 2024. (Image: WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea were poised for discussion at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which is slated for October. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., while speaking in Australia, emphasized his administration’s commitment to “managing threats” involved in his country’s national territory, while prioritizing dialogue and diplomacy in resolving ongoing disputes with China.

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“It is unfortunate that despite the clarity provided by international law, provocative, unilateral and illegal actions continue to infringe upon our sovereignty, our sovereign rights and jurisdictions,” said Marcos during a speech at the Lowy Institute international, a policy think-tank based in Melbourne. 

For decades, China has asserted control over almost all of the South China Sea — a key global maritime route. But the stance conflicts with the territorial claims of surrounding countries, including Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei — each of which claims parts of the islands, reefs, and underwater assets in the region.

“We simply have no choice. We must defend the territory of the republic. That is a primordial duty of a leader,” said Marcos, adding, “The territorial integrity of the Philippines cannot be threatened, and if threats are made, then we must defend against those threats.”

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.