Philippines flags ‘harassment’ by Chinese vessels ahead of Japan, US drills

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A Philippine Coast Guard worker watches while conducting a resupply mission for Filipino troops stationed at a grounded warship in an area of the South China Sea under its exclusive economic zone [File: Adrian Portugal/Reuters]

Recent clashes between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea have raised concerns of a maritime escalation.

The Philippines has said that two Chinese coastguard ships “harassed” Filipino fishing vessels within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the disputed South China Sea, ahead of joint military drills with its allies.

The coastguard vessels “went as far as pretending to man their water cannon and threatening the Filipino fishermen” in the Iroquois reef on April 4, Jay Tarriela, spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard posted on X on Saturday.

“This aggressive action stems from China’s greed and unfounded claim that these waters belong to them based on their imaginary dashed line,” Tarriela wrote in a statement.

There was no immediate comment from China, which claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea.

“It is important to note that Rozul Reef falls within the Philippines’ EEZ since it is located at approximately 128 nautical miles away from Palawan,” Tarriela added, referring to the reef by its Filipino name. The Philippines also refers to the area of the South China Sea within its EEZ as the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippines and China have reported several maritime run-ins in recent months, which included the use of water cannon. The two countries have long faced off near the disputed reefs in the vast and resource-rich sea lane.

Since taking power in 2022, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has pursued warmer ties with the United States and other Western nations and adopted a tough line against what he sees as Chinese hostility.

He said last month that the Philippines will take countermeasures against China after the latest confrontation injured Filipino soldiers and damaged vessels.

On Sunday, the Philippines will host joint naval and air drills with the US, Japan and Australia in the disputed area, as it seeks to deepen ties with its allies to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

In a joint statement on Saturday, the participating defence chiefs of the four countries said the drill would demonstrate their “collective commitment to strengthen regional and international cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

Next week, US President Joe Biden is due to hold the first trilateral summit with Marcos Jr and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington, DC.

The drills will include naval and air force units from all four countries, the statement said, but did not provide further details.

Japan’s embassy in Manila said that “anti-submarine warfare training” would be included in the exercises.

China has blamed the Philippines for raising tensions in the contested waterway.

Top US officials have repeatedly declared the United States’ “ironclad” commitment to defending the Philippines against an armed attack in the South China Sea.

“These activities with our allies Australia, Japan, and the Philippines underscore our shared commitment to ensuring that all countries are free to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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