Two Filipinos were injured after Chinese Coast Guard vessels opened fire on their supply vessels as they traveled near a disputed Philippine island in the South China Sea, the government’s Maritime Forces Chief said on Wednesday.
Vice Admiral Grace Rosa, commander of Philippine Coast Guard operations, described the incident on Mischief Reef as “belligerent and not deliberate.”
“If this is deliberate, it’s a violation of international law and the law of the sea,” she told DZMM radio station.
She did not provide details of the incident, except to say that the Chinese vessels fired water cannons.
The Philippine Maritime Forces had earlier confirmed that its ships came under fire early Tuesday and said that they identified the source of the fire as Chinese government vessels.
“However, we now know who it was. It was a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. We identified the source,” maritime forces spokesman Commander Thomas Kirk said by telephone, adding that it was a heavily armed Chinese vessel.
Kirk said two Filipino Coast Guard vessels were hit with water cannon in the incident, adding that one of them was rammed and suffered a fracture in its vessel deck.
The other vessel was detained by Chinese Coast Guard vessels at the scene. Kirk said he had no word about the condition of the two injured Filipino crew members.
Kirk said he did not know whether the incident was triggered by an encounter between the two government vessels before the shooting but said: “We have just identified them so we are still trying to ascertain who exactly shot at us.
He said they were on a mission to replenish two small, rickety outrigger canoes that Philippine fishermen from the Half Moon Shoal is attempting to use to supply Chinese fishermen from another part of Mischief Reef in the disputed area.
The Philippine government seized Mischief Reef in 1999 after a tense standoff with China.
China claims most of the South China Sea, where about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
China has maintained that it has sovereignty over the Nansha Islands, claiming almost the entire sea.
Philippine troops were deployed earlier this year to retake control of Mischief Reef after China reclaimed the land and constructed artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands.
On March 12, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suggested that Manila may rescind its controversial decision to join a U.S.-led treaty alliance.
He said the Philippines may want to cut ties with the U.S. military.
“Since the American pivot, nobody can accuse us of any problems. We are always patrolling, full force. Every time you see a Philippine military plane flying in the area, it is in danger,” Duterte said.
“America is actually in our backyard. At one point we should have cut off a nook and cranny off the alliance. We need to be very careful.”
Duterte’s comments follow a long series of high-level visits to China over the past six months that have eased tense ties between Manila and Beijing.
He visited Beijing last month. The Philippines President is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month at a leaders’ summit in Vietnam.
Both countries had been locked in a bitter territorial dispute over a group of rocky outcrops in the South China Sea known as the Scarborough Shoal before Duterte ended a court case against China in 2016.
However, Washington is concerned that some of Duterte’s moves toward China could embolden Beijing to challenge U.S. presence in the region in what would be a deeply destabilizing move.
For instance, Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano has welcomed a development which will see the country send four new warships in three batches to China to help arm China’s coast guard forces.
The Philippines is already a key ally of the U.S. and has long been viewed by Washington as a key counterweight to China in Asia.
Earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said his country wants to work with the Philippines in the South China Sea.
“Our countries have never damaged each other’s security interests. They have always worked together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Geng said.