The United States has called on China to stop its “provocative and unsafe conduct” in the South China Sea after a near-collision with a Philippines coast guard boat. The incident happened off the Spratly Islands, which are contested by both countries. Beijing claims sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea, despite an international ruling that the claim has no legal basis. The US has been working to strengthen relations with Asian allies as its relationship with China remains strained. The Philippines’ proximity to key sea lanes and Taiwan makes it strategically important.
The near-miss was witnessed by several media outlets who were invited to join two Philippine Coast Guard boats on a six-day patrol of the waters. The Philippine vessels approached Second Thomas Shoal, known in China as Ren’ai Jiao, in the Spratly archipelago. As one boat, carrying Filipino journalists, neared the shoal, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, more than twice its size, sailed into its path. The Malapascua’s commanding officer said the Chinese ship came within 45 meters of his boat and only his quick actions avoided the vessels crashing into each other.
The Chinese foreign ministry said that the Philippine boats had “intruded” without China’s permission and called it a “premeditated and provocative action.” Manila hit back, saying that “routine patrols in our own waters can be neither premeditated or provocative” and insisting they will continue to conduct patrols. The near-miss came just a day after the Philippines hosted Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang for talks aimed at defusing tensions in the waterway.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has insisted he will not let China trample on the Philippines’ rights in the sea and has gravitated towards the United States as he seeks to strengthen defense ties. Early this month, the Philippines identified four additional military bases to which US forces will have access, including one near the Spratly Islands. The two countries also carried out their biggest ever military maneuvers in recent weeks. This shift has alarmed China, which has accused Washington of trying to drive a wedge between Beijing and Manila.
US-Philippine ties were badly frayed under Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Marcos has sought to allay public fears that the reviving alliance with the US could bring the Philippines into the conflict if China were to invade Taiwan. He has said that with President Biden he will discuss the “need to tone down the rhetoric” over the South China Sea, Taiwan, and North Korea. The White House has said that Biden intends to “reaffirm the United States’ ironclad commitment to the defense of the Philippines” in his meeting with Marcos.