Light Wave


China and Philippians Duel over Disputed South China Sea

By Belal Awad · August 7, 2023

In brief…

  • Chinese Coast Guard fired water cannon at a Philippine supply boat near the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
  • The incident is part of an ongoing territorial dispute in the region, with China claiming nearly the entire sea - a claim rejected by the Philippines and supported by a UN tribunal.
  • The Philippines has been pushing back against China's blockade of Second Thomas Shoal and publicizing China's activities in the region.
  • China has conducted similar acts in the past and, according to experts, will continue to do so in the future in order to achieve its territorial ambitions.
The Sierra Madre (above) is a rusting World War II era ship inhabited by a small contingent of Philippine Navy personnel.  NavSource

The Chinese Coast Guard reportedly fired a water cannon at a Philippine supply boat during a routine troop rotation mission in the South China Sea. The encounter took place Saturday near the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef over which China claims sovereignty. Earlier today, the Philippine government summoned the Chinese ambassador in Manila, where he was handed a strong diplomatic protest.

The Philippine Navy reported that the incident occurred near a rusty World War II era U.S. ship, The Sierra Madre, a symbol of the Philippine’s claim to the shoal. This latest confrontation is part of an ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea marked by Beijing’s so-called nine-dash line, which lays claim to nearly the entire sea. The claim, however, is disputed by other countries in the region and was deemed groundless by a 2016 UN tribunal ruling.

Colonel Ray Powell, director of the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University, told Al Jazeera that China’s provocations have so far not succeeded in forcing Manila to change its strategy. “Since the beginning of the year, the Philippines has been pushing back more strongly against China’s blockade of Second Thomas Shoal and have been publicizing China’s gray-zone activities in what they call the West Philippine Sea,” Powell said.

The Philippines resupplies its soldiers on the ship in the area regularly, and China often stages what the Philippines claims are provocations. Powell explained that such incidents have become commonplace during resupply missions, which occur roughly every 45 days. He noted that there has been an incident during every rotation since the beginning of the year:

“There was a laser-pointing incident - what we call a dazzler - at the Philippine resupply Coast Guard vessel. There have been a couple of blockades where the Philippine vessel has been physically blocked. This is the first of the water-cannon events this year.”

Powell said that while the provocations are “routine,” there could be a future tipping point which would escalate the conflict.

“This really is China’s strategy, which is to blockade the Philippines away from the ship until it becomes uninhabitable. And this would truly provoke a crisis, because at that point, if the Philippines abandons the ship, China wins the shoal. And that would certainly bring us into quite a new space,” Powell said.