Chinese ship blocks Philippine vessel as journalists watch


The Philippine coast guard had invited a small group of journalists, including three from The Associated Press, to join the 1,670-kilometer (1,038-mile) patrol for the first time as part of a new Philippine strategy aimed at exposing China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade transits each year.
In scorching summer heat but relatively calm waters, the Malapascua and another Philippine coast guard vessel, the BRP Malabrigo, journeyed to the frontlines of the long-seething territorial conflicts.They cruised past a string of widely scattered Philippine-occupied and claimed islands, islets and reefs looking for signs of encroachment, illegal fishing and other threats.
In areas occupied or controlled by China, the Philippine patrol vessels received radio warnings in Chinese and halting English, ordering them to immediately leave what the Chinese coast guard and navy radio callers claimed were Beijing’s “undisputable territories” and issuing unspecified threats for defiance.
Hostilities peaked Sunday morning in the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal.As the two patrol vessels approached the shoal’s shallow turquoise waters for an underwater survey, the Chinese coast guard repeatedly warned them by radio to leave the area, which is about 194 kilometers (121 miles) west of the Philippine island province of Palawan.
After several radio exchanges, a Chinese coast guard caller, sounding agitated, warned of unspecified adversarial action.
“Since you have disregarded our warning, we will take further necessary measures on you in accordance with the laws and any consequences entailed will be borne by you,” the Chinese speaker said.
A Chinese coast guard ship rapidly approached and shadowed the smaller Malapascua and the Malabrigo. When the Malapascua maneuvered toward the mouth of the shoal, the Chinese ship suddenly shifted to block it, coming as close as 36 to 46 meters (120 to 150 feet) from its bow, said Malapascua’s skipper, Capt. Rodel Hernandez.To avoid a collision, Hernandez abruptly reversed his vessel’s direction then shut off its engine to bring the boat to a full stop.
Filipino personnel aboard the vessels — and journalists, who captured the tense moment on camera — watched in frightened silence. But the Malapascua steered just in time to avoid a potential disaster.
Hernandez later told journalists that the “sudden and really very dangerous maneuver” by the Chinese coast guard ship had disregarded international rules on collision avoidance.
China has long demanded that the Philippines withdraw its small contingent of naval forces and tow away the actively commissioned but crumbling BRP Sierra Madre. The navy ship was deliberately marooned on the shoal in 1999 and now serves as a fragile symbol of Manila’s territorial claim to the atoll.Chinese ships often block navy vessels delivering food and other supplies to the Filipino sailors on the ship, including just a few days earlier, Hernandez said.
Philippine officials required participating journalists to not immediately release information about the trip to ensure the safety of the mission and to give the coast guard time to brief defense, justice and foreign affairs officials in charge of handling the touchy territorial conflicts.