Philippines accuses China of firing water cannons at its ships in South China Sea

Jake Kwon and Heather Chen, CNN

The Philippines has accused Chinese Coast Guard ships of firing water cannons and making “dangerous maneuvers” at its ships in the South China Sea.

“The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) strongly condemns the China Coast Guard’s (CCG) dangerous maneuvers and illegal use of water cannons against PCG vessels,” the PCG wrote in a statement shared on its official Facebook account Saturday.

PCG vessels were escorting ships carrying supplies to military troops stationed in Ayungin Shoal, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, in the Spratly Islands chain, known in China as the Nansha Islands.

China calls the shoal Renai Reef.

In a response issued on Sunday, China accused the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) of trespassing in its waters.

“Two Filipino supply vessels and two coast guard vessels illegally intruded into the waters adjacent to Renai Reef in China’s Nansha Islands,” Gan Yu, spokesman for the China Coast Guard, said according to the statement published on its website.

“China coast guard implemented the necessary controls in accordance with the law and prevented the Philippine vessels carrying the illegal construction materials. We urge the Philippine side to immediately stop its infringing activities in that maritime area,” Gan Yu said according to the statement.

Gan Yu reasserted Chinese territorial claim on the islands and the South China Sea, vowing to continue its law-enforcement activity within the region.

The US State Department, meanwhile, voiced its support for the Philippines and called on China to respect the freedom of navigation. “(China) has no lawful claim to the maritime area around Second Thomas Shoal,” it said in a statement published on Saturday.

One of the world’s most contested regions

The South China Sea has long been a source of tension between Manila and Beijing.

Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea, as well as most of the islands within it. That includes the Spratlys, an archipelago consisting of 100 small islands and reefs also claimed in full or part by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Manila however calls the area the West Philippine Sea. In 1999 it intentionally grounded a navy transport ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, on Second Thomas Shoal, manned by Filipino marines, to enforce the country’s claim to the area.

Philippine maritime authorities have accused Chinese vessels of harassing Filipino fishers in the vicinity.

Relations were strained in December when Manila expressed “great concern” about the presence of Chinese vessels in the contested waterway.

A month later, Chinese leader Xi Jinping met his Philippine counterpart Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and the two men agreed to strengthen economic ties and resume talks on oil exploration amid friction over contested areas of the waterway.