The Philippines has accused China of trying to prevent its coastguard from resupplying a contingent deployed at an atoll in the disputed South China Sea by directing a “military-grade laser light” at the ship and carrying out “dangerous” manoeuvres.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said the crew of its ship, the Malapascua, encountered the Chinese coastguard vessel on February 6 as they were about 10 nautical miles (18.5km) from Ayungin Shoal, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, during a routine resupply trip to sailors stationed there.
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The Chinese ship shone the laser twice at the Malapascua “causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge”, the coastguard said in a statement on Facebook on Monday.
The vessel made dangerous manoeuvres and the Malapascua altered its course to head towards Lawak Island, PCG said.
Ayungin Shoal lies about 105 nautical miles (195km) northwest of the Philippine province of Palawan in the disputed Spratly Islands.
It is home to a small group of Philippine soldiers who are living on board a rusting second World War-era ship known as the Sierra Madre, which was deliberately grounded there in 1999 to underline the Philippines’ claim to the island chain.
“The deliberate blocking of the Philippine government ships to deliver food and supplies to our military personnel on board the BRP SIERRA MADRE is a blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights in this part of the West Philippine Sea,” the statement said.
The PCG said China had also prevented its ships from getting close to the shoal in August.
On that occasion, two ships from the Chinese Maritime Militia joined two Chinese coastguard vessels to form a “blockade”, the statement said. Sailors on one of the coastguard ships also removed the cover of its “70 mm naval armament” as the Philippine resupply vessel got closer, it added.
Tensions have risen around Ayungin Shoal, which lies within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone, previously.
In November 2021, three ships from the Chinese coastguard blocked and fired water cannon on two Philippine boats forcing them to abandon their plan to resupply the Sierra Madre.
China has become increasingly assertive over its claim to almost the entire South China Sea, developing military bases on rocky outcrops and deploying the coastguard, its maritime militia and fishing vessels to back its claims.
The sea is also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines and a number of other Southeast Asian countries.
Manila took Beijing to court over its claim to the waterway and in 2016, the court found there was “no legal basis” to China’s claim. Beijing has refused to recognise the ruling.
The PCG reiterated that it will continue to support and protect the “sovereignty and rights” of the Philippines and the troops on board the Sierra Madre.
“Despite the dangerous maneuver of the much larger CCG ships and their aggressive actions at sea, the PCG ships will always be in the West Philippine Sea to sustain our presence and assert our sovereign rights,” PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio M Abu said in the statement.
The Philippines recently agreed to allow the United States access to more of its military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries.
Last week, it also announced it would boost security ties with Japan.