Beijing, Manila Play Blame Game in South China Sea, Again

On October 22, Philippine Coast Guard vessels collided with Chinese ships in the disputed South China Sea, resulting in a renewed diplomatic row.

The incident took place within the Philippines’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. Its coast guard and supply ships were reportedly en route to BRP Sierra Madre — a deliberately grounded warship in the Second Thomas Shoal meant to buttress the country’s territorial claims against those of China.

The Philippines accused Beijing of forming a blockade around and hitting two of its vessels, leaving only one supply boat available to deliver supplies.


An aging Sierra Madre

Beijing said that the Philippine vessel had “stirred trouble by reversing in a premeditated manner” and accused Manila of transporting supplies to fix the Sierra Madre, which it sees as sustaining Manila’s claim in the South China Sea. Beijing, seen by some as playing the “long game,” expects these monthly supply deliveries will eventually cease as the ship falls apart.

The Philippines has faced increasing obstructions in resupplying the Sierra Madre over the last year, with Chinese vessels reportedly pointing lasers and firing water cannons at Philippine vessels. Accusing the Philippines of trespassing in its territory, Beijing resorts to using such “gray zone tactics” to stake its claim in the disputed territory.

Manila has released videos of its coast guard’s altercations with Chinese vessels to Filipino media outlets. Just days before the most recent South China Sea altercation, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. announced the acquisition of 40 patrol boats in response to China’s growing threats.


More international backlash

Beijing’s actions have resulted in a now predictable international backlash. Canada’s embassy in the Philippines stated that such acts “undermine safety, stability, and security across the region.” Washington issued a warning to Beijing, stating that such a provocation was “dangerous and unlawful” and that it would not hesitate to invoke its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

On October 24, a U.S.-led joint naval drill was conducted in the South China Sea that included countries such as Canada and Japan. The timing may have been coincidental, but it signals to China that freedom of navigation and the South China Sea remain priorities for the U.S.