A screenshot posted on X by the Philippine military purports to show Chinese coast guard personnel intercepting a Philippine resupply mission in the South China Sea on June 17, 2024.

A screenshot posted on X by the Philippine military purports to show Chinese coast guard personnel intercepting a Philippine resupply mission in the South China Sea on June 17, 2024. (Armed Forces of the Philippines)

The U.S. Secretary of State reassured his Philippine counterpart of the “United States’ ironclad commitments to the Philippines” two days after a violent clash between Philippine sailors and China’s coast guard in the South China Sea.

The State Department described China’s actions as “escalatory,” and “dangerous and irresponsible,” according to a readout of Secretary Antony Blinken’s phone call Wednesday with Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo.

“Secretary Blinken emphasized that the PRC’s actions undermine regional peace and stability and underscored the United States’ ironclad commitments to the Philippines under our Mutual Defense Treaty,” the readout stated.

Chinese coast guard personnel on more than eight motorboats repeatedly rammed then boarded two Philippine navy inflatable boats Monday to prevent Filipino personnel from transferring food and other supplies, including firearms, to the BRP Sierra Madre, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The grounded warship serves as a Philippine territorial outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, which Beijing also claims.

After a scuffle and repeated collisions, the Chinese seized the boats and damaged them with machetes, knives and hammers. They also seized eight M4 rifles packed in cases, navigation equipment and other supplies and wounded several Filipino sailors, including one who lost his right thumb, two Philippine security officials told the AP.

A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry laid responsibility for the incident on the Philippines.

“Let me stress that what directly led to this situation is the Philippines’ ignoring of China’s dissuasion and deliberate intrusion into the waters” around the shoal, spokesman Lin Jian told reporters Wednesday, according to his remarks posted on the ministry website. “The law enforcement action taken by China Coast Guard on the scene was professional and restrained and aimed at stopping the illegal ‘resupply mission.’”

Further escalation at the shoal is possible, according to Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and a lecturer at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

“In recent days China has pushed the envelope beyond dangerous maneuvers, water cannons and ramming to seizing and vandalizing Philippine supplies for its detachment on the BRP Sierra Madre and now boarding and seizing weapons carried by uniformed Philippine officials,” he told Stars and Stripes by email Thursday.

‘Up the ante’

Escalation could result in a Filipino fatality or sinking a Philippine vessel as the Philippines increases the scope and tempo of naval patrols in its territorial waters in the South China Sea, he said.

However, if China holds short of an armed attack on Philippine military ships and public vessels, the risk of U.S. involvement is low, Thayer said.

America’s options include enlisting other allies such as Japan and Australia, along with like-minded maritime powers in Europe, to join patrols and provide overwatch for Philippine supply missions or even escorts for Philippine supply vessels, he said.

Grant Newsham, a retired Marine colonel and senior researcher with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, agreed the situation may intensify.

“The Chinese have been clear about what they intend to do with Philippine maritime territory that the PRC covets: dominate, control, and, if necessary, seize and occupy it - make it impossible for their smaller, outmatched victims to retake it,” he said by email Thursday. “This is also the pattern they’ve used throughout the South China Sea. And they are quite willing to use force to get their way.”

Clashes will continue until the Philippines backs off or the United States steps in and lives up to its commitments to its Philippine allies, Newsham said.

U.S. Navy ships and aircraft could accompany Philippine vessels and U.S. ships and helicopters could conduct resupply missions to the shoal, he said.

However, Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said on any intensification of the dispute will likely be limited.

“It seems that both sides are trying to show resolve but do not want greater escalation at this point,” he said.

China will likely “up the ante” but the U.S. response depends on what the Philippines wants, he said.

“Manila and Washington probably want to remind Beijing and the world that protecting sovereignty is the Philippines’ prerogative, although they probably have an incentive to show that they are not going to cave to increasing pressure,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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