The Philippines has accused a Chinese coast guard ship of hitting a Filipino vessel with a military-grade laser and temporarily blinding some of its crew in the disputed South China Sea, calling it a “blatant” violation of Manila’s sovereign rights.
The Chinese ship also manoeuvred dangerously close – about 450ft (137m) – to block the Philippines patrol vessel BRP Malapascua from approaching Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef that has been occupied by Philippine forces, on February 6, the Philippines coast guard said in a statement.
The Philippines has filed nearly 200 diplomatic protests against China’s aggressive actions in the disputed waters in 2022 alone.
China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, putting it on a collision course with other claimants.
Although the Chinese coast guard had tried to block Philippines coast guard ships in the disputed waters before, this was the first time it has used lasers and caused physical suffering among Filipino personnel, Philippines coast guard spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo told the Associated Press.
There was no immediate comment from the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
“The Chinese ship illuminated the green laser light twice toward the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge,” the Philippines statement said.
The Filipino vessel was forced to move away from the area, where it was escorting a supply vessel that was delivering food and sailors to a Philippines navy sentry ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, which has been marooned on Second Thomas Shoal since 1999, the coast guard said.
“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 coast guard said, using the name the Philippines has adopted for the stretch of water close to its western coast.
It was not immediately clear if the Philippine resupply mission pushed through despite the incident.
The Chinese coast guard also blocked Philippines ships escorting a supply vessel from approaching Second Thomas Shoal in August, the coast guard said.
In the latest incident, one of the two Chinese ships that were joined by two Chinese civilian vessels removed the cover of its 70mm armament, the coast guard said, adding it would not be deterred by China’s aggression in protecting Filipino sovereignty in the disputed sea.
The United States lays no claims to 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 at a time of heightened tensions with Beijing over the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon.
The US has been taking steps to rebuild its military might in the Philippines more than 30 years after the closure of its large bases in the country and reinforcing an arc of military alliances in Asia.