WASHINGTON, D.C.: The United States (US) on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) accused China of raising tensions by blocking two Philippine vessels as it urged freedom of navigation in the tense West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The United States, a treaty-bound ally of Manila, said it was “troubled” by Sunday’s incident in which China prevented movement of two ships contracted by the Philippine navy to deliver supplies and troops to the disputed Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
“This is a provocative move that raises tensions. Pending resolution of competing claims in the South China Sea, there should be no interference with the efforts of claimants to maintain the status quo,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The Philippines on Tuesday summoned China’s charge d’affaires, accusing Beijing of a “clear and urgent threat” to Manila’s interests. Beijing countered that the ships “infringed China’s territorial sovereignty” and violated a 2002 declaration of conduct in the South China Sea.
The United States rejected China’s stance, saying that countries had the right to “regular resupply and rotation of personnel” to locations before the 2002 declaration.
The Second Thomas Shoal, which sits around 200 kilometers from Palawan, is claimed by the Philippines, China and Taiwan. Beijing calls it Ren’ai Reef.
Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam claim other parts of the Spratly islands, which lie near vital sea lanes and rich fishing grounds and are also believe to sit on vast mineral resources.
While saying it takes no position on the sovereignty of disputed territories, the US has been increasingly robust in its criticism of China. Last month, the United States challenged the legal basis for China’s claims over a vast area across the South China Sea.
The United States has been seeking to prevent China from taking more drastic action in the South China Sea. In November, China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone—requiring planes to report to Beijing—over a vast area in the East China Sea where it has a separate but intense feud over Japanese-administered islands.
Japan and the Philippines have accused China of making growing incursions to challenge their control over territories. US President Barack Obama will visit Japan and the Philippines next month.
Send them back
But a security official on Thursday said the Philippine Navy will send back the civilian ships to bring supplies to the Filipino troops because their food supply is running low.
“The plan is we really have to pursue the provisioning because we don’t want our people there to die [from hunger]. The Navy has the moral obligation to support its personnel in Ayungin. And as far as the people are concerned, that is their basic human entitlement,” said the source who requested anonymity.
“We would like the world to know and to perceive that China is doing an inhuman act by doing this. What they are preventing is feeding our people,” he added.
He stressed that what the China coast guard are doing is some kind of an embargo, which is prohibited under the International Humanitarian Law.
According to the source, the soldiers were deployed to Ayungin Shoal in November.
They have not received any new provisions since then. The troops are staying on a ship that ran aground in 1999 that has since served as the military’s advance post in the area.
A Navy islander plane, he said, dropped several gallons of water on Monday but
officials are not sure if the soldiers got them.
“But bottom line is knowing that they are already really short on food and water because the vessels that were supposed to resupply were forced to turn back, we really tried to bring them water the next day,” he said.
China has claimed that the ships were carrying construction materials which the source denied.
“Those are not construction materials, those are mere items for improvement of the living condition of our people there; just for the habitability of the place, that’s it,” he said.
He added that the Philippines has not built any new structures in the disputed areas and that it is China that has violated the moratorium on the building of structures in the West Philippine Sea.
AFP With a report from William B. Depasupil