HONG KONG — China faced growing backlash Monday after it blocked and fired water cannons at a key U.S. ally’s vessels in the disputed South China Sea, the latest incident to raise tensions over the crucial waterway.
The Philippine government summoned Beijing's ambassador and lodged a diplomatic protest over the weekend confrontation, while Washington reiterated a warning that it is obligated to defend its ally if it comes under attack. China countered that its actions were necessary, accusing the Philippines of violating its sovereignty.
Manila released video of the incident, which threatened to further stoke a regional clash over competing claims to the area, a growing flashpoint between the U.S. and China.
Philippine coast guard vessels were escorting boats delivering food, water and other supplies to troops stationed on the Second Thomas Shoal — a tiny atoll in the contested Spratly Islands — when Chinese coast guard ships sought to block them and fired water cannons Saturday.
“The Philippine vessels were subjected to repeated water cannoning and continuous dangerous maneuvers,” the country's national security council spokesperson, Jonathan Malaya, said Monday at a news conference.
China's actions had placed “the lives of the crew of Philippine vessels at risk, in violation of international and humanitarian law,” he added, describing it as “like a David-and-Goliath situation.”
The boats were undertaking a “regular rotation and resupply mission,” Malaya said, adding that only one boat eventually reached the shoal.
China said the move was necessary, accusing the Philippines of violating its sovereignty and reiterating its claims over the shoal as part of its own Nansha Islands.
“In order to avoid direct blocking and collisions when repeated warnings were ineffective, water cannons were used to warn,” a spokesperson for the Chinese coast guard said Monday.
The disputed shoal is in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, which has long been regarded as a source of tension between China and its neighbors, as well as a delicate fault line in its rivalry with the U.S.
China claims ownership over virtually the entire strategic waterway despite international rulings that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims. Its stance has antagonized many countries in the region with which it has territorial disputes.
The U.S. and allies, including the European Union, Japan and Australia, expressed their support for the Philippines, voicing concerns over the Chinese actions.
“By impeding necessary provisions from reaching the Filipino servicemembers stationed at Second Thomas shoal, the PRC has also undertaken unwarranted interference in lawful Philippine maritime operations,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement Saturday, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Washington also renewed a warning that it is committed to defend its longtime treaty ally if Philippine vessels were to come under an armed attack.
Beijing accused Washington of supporting a violation of its sovereignty, with a Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson saying Monday at a news briefing that China urged the U.S. to respect its maritime rights.
The U.S. and many of China’s neighbors accuse Beijing of using “gray zone” tactics that are not legally acts of war to intimidate other countries and assert greater control over the area. In response, the U.S. regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” and other operations in international waters and airspace that China says serve only to fuel tensions and threaten its security.
Beijing has long demanded that the Philippines withdraw its troops from the shoal at the center of the weekend standoff, which it calls Ren'ai Jiao. The Philippine forces are stationed atop a rusting ship that has been grounded there since 1999 and now serves as a vestige of Manila’s claim to the area.
Beijing sees the resupply efforts as cover for a bid to strengthen the Philippine presence.
“Humanitarian supplies provided once in two weeks have been unimpeded,” said Hu Bo, the director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative in Beijing.
“But the action of reinforcing its warship is, in China’s view, to change the current situation of the South China Sea, which will definitely drive China to take all the possible measures to maintain the status quo,” he said.