SOUTH SEA: As a Philippine Coast Guard rubber boat carrying journalists sped towards Filipino troops on a grounded navy vessel in the disputed South China Sea, three Chinese speed boats gave chase.

The high-seas pursuit near Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands on Friday ended when Philippine Navy inflatable speed boats deployed from the crumbling BRP Sierra Madre and blocked the approaching Chinese vessels.

Moments later, the Philippine Coast Guard craft carrying media persons slipped into the shallow waters of the shoal. It floated about 180 metres from the World War II-era BRP Sierra Madre where a handful of marines are stationed — one of nine Philippine outposts in the hotly contested Spratlys.

The rusty hulk has been a flashpoint for Manila and Beijing since the Philippine Navy ran it aground in 1999 to check China’s advance in the waters. China claims almost the entire South China Sea and has disputed statements that its stance has no legal basis.

It deploys steel-hulled ships and speed boats to patrol the waters and reefs in the sea and has built artificial islands that it has militarised to reinforce its claims. Tensions have escalated under Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, whose administration has been increasingly vocal in criticising Chinese actions in the sea.

Resupply and rotation missions to the BRP Sierra Madre have become a frequent trigger of diplomatic spats between the countries. Manila accuses Chinese vessels of harassing and blocking Philip­pine boats delivering food, water and materials for badly needed repairs.

Beijing, which has urged Manila to remove the ship, insists the Philippine vessels are infringing China’s territorial sovereignty.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2023

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