SECOND THOMAS SHOAL: A Philippine government ship slipped past a Chinese coast guard blockade Saturday and brought food and fresh troops to a marooned navy ship used as a base by Filipino troops to bolster the country’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
The incident was witnessed by journalists who were invited by the Philippines military to accompany the resupply mission.
It was a rare close-up look at the tensions in the waters and the determination of both sides to press their claims. China’s growing assertiveness is alarming smaller nations that have competing territorial claims and worrying the United States, which is neutral in the disputes but jockeying for influence with Beijing in the region.
Around one hour away from Second Thomas Shoal, where the detachment is based, a Chinese coast guard ship marked “1141” twice crossed the bow of the smaller Philippine vessel in an attempt to stop it from proceeding. Another tailed the Filipino boat.
The Chinese radioed the Filipinos, telling them to stop. “You will take full responsibility for the consequences of your action,” the voice said in English.
“This is the Republic of the Philippines,” Philippine navy Lt. Ferdinand Gato, who was in charge of the supply mission, replied. “We are here to provision the troops.” The marines on board the supply boat waved the “V” for peace sign toward the Chinese vessel.
The Filipino captain maneuvered his vessel to shallow waters where the Chinese ships couldn’t sail to reach the marooned vessel, BRP Sierra Madre, which has become an awkward symbol of Philippine sovereignty in the remote offshore territory.
On March 9, Chinese vessels blocked a resupply mission to the shoal, called Ayungin by the Philippines Philippine air force planes have airdropped live-saving food and water at least twice since then.
The cat-and-mouse-like confrontation was witnessed by Associated Press journalists and more than a dozen other media members who were allowed by the Philippine military to board the government vessel to show what the Manila government has said was “China’s bullying” in the disputed waters.
As they approached the shoal, one of the marines raised the Philippine flag on the supply ship. Once inside the shoal, the marines and the crew applauded and exchanged high-fives. Journalists said a plane with US Navy markings also flew above the marooned ship.