MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The Philippines accused a Chinese coast guard ship Monday of hitting a Philippine coast guard vessel with a military-grade laser and temporarily blinding some of its crew in the disputed South China Sea, calling it an “invisible” violation of Manila’s sovereign rights.
A Chinese ship also maneuvered dangerously close, about 137 meters (449 feet), to block the Philippine patrol vessel BRP Malapascua from approaching Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef occupied by Philippine forces, on Feb. 6, the Philippine Coast Guard said in a statement .
In 2022 alone, the Philippines filed nearly 200 diplomatic protests against China’s aggressive actions in disputed waters.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, putting it at odds with other claimants. Despite friendly efforts by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his successor Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in January, tensions remain, drawing a closer military alliance between the Philippines and the US.
Although the Chinese coast guard has tried to block Philippine coast guard ships in disputed waters before, this was the first time it used lasers and caused physical suffering to Philippine personnel, Philippine coast guard spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo told The Associated Press.
There was no comment from the Chinese embassy in Manila.
“The Chinese ship twice flashed a green laser light towards the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to her crew on the bridge,” the Philippines said in a statement.
The Philippine ship was forced to move away from the area, where it was escorting a supply ship delivering food and sailors to the Philippine Navy’s patrol vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, which has been stranded on Second Thomas Shoal since 1999, the coast guard said .
“The deliberate blocking of Philippine government ships from delivering food and supplies to our military personnel aboard the BRP Sierra Madre is a flagrant disregard and clear violation of Philippine sovereign rights in this part of the West Philippine Sea,” the coast guard said, using the name the Philippines has adopted for the stretch of waters near its west coast.
It was not immediately clear whether the Philippine supply mission was successful despite the incident.
The Chinese coast guard also blocked Philippine ships escorting a supply ship from approaching Second Thomas Shoal in August, the coast guard said.
In the latest incident, one of the two Chinese ships joined by two Chinese civilian vessels removed the cover of its 70 mm armament, the coast guard said, adding that it would not be deterred by Chinese aggression in protecting the Philippines’ sovereignty in the disputed sea.
In addition to China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the resource- and traffic-rich waterway, where most of the world’s trade and oil passes.
The United States does not claim the disputed sea but has deployed forces to patrol the waters to promote freedom of navigation and overflight — moves that have angered Beijing, which has warned Washington to stop meddling in what it says is a purely Asian dispute.
The US Navy and Marine Corps held joint exercises in the South China Sea over the weekend amid heightened tensions with Beijing over the downing of an alleged Chinese spy balloon. The US is taking steps to rebuild its military power in the Philippines more than 30 years after closing its major bases in the country and strengthening its military alliances in Asia.