| SECOND THOMAS SHOAL, South China Sea, March 30
SECOND THOMAS SHOAL, South China Sea, March 30 (Reuters) -
The Philippine government vessel made a dash for shallow waters
around the disputed reef in the South China Sea, evading two
Chinese coastguard ships trying to block its path to deliver
food, water and fresh troops to a military outpost on the shoal.
The cat-and-mouse encounter on Saturday, witnessed by
Reuters and other media invited onboard the Philippine ship, was
a rare glimpse into the tensions playing out routinely in waters
that are one of the region's biggest flashpoints.
It's also a reminder of how assertive China has become in
pressing its claims to disputed territory far from its
"If we didn't change direction, if we didn't change course,
then we would have collided with them," Ferdinand Gato, captain
of the Philippine vessel, a civilian craft, told Reuters after
his boat had anchored on the Second Thomas Shoal under a hot
The outpost is a huge, rusting World War Two transport
vessel that the Philippine navy intentionally ran aground in
1999 to mark its claim to the reef.
There, around eight Filipino soldiers live for three months
at a time in harsh conditions on a reef that Manila says is
within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China, which claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, says the
shoal is part of its territory.
Things were going smoothly for the Philippine ship until it
was spotted by a Chinese coastguard ship about an hour away from
the Second Thomas Shoal. The Chinese boat picked up speed to
come near the left of the white Philippine ship, honking its
horn at least three times.
The Chinese ship slowed down after a few minutes, but then a
bigger coastguard vessel emerged, moving fast to cut the path of
the Philippine boat.
The Chinese sent a radio message to the Filipinos, saying
they were entering Chinese territory.
"We order you to stop immediately, stop all illegal
activities and leave," said the radio message, delivered in
English. Gato replied that his mission was to deliver provisions
to Philippine troops stationed in the area.
Philippine troops wearing civilian clothes and journalists
then flashed "V" for the peace sign at the Chinese.
WATCHED FROM THE SKY
Instead of stopping or reversing, the Philippine vessel
picked up speed and eventually maneuvered away from the Chinese,
entering waters that were too shallow for the bigger coastguard
A U.S. navy plane, a Philippine military aircraft and a
Chinese plane - all visible from their markings - flew above the
ships at different intervals.
Filipino troops on the civilian vessel clapped as they came
within a few metres of the marooned transport ship, the BRP
Sierra Madre. Supplies of food and water were then hauled up to
Later, the eight soldiers due to be relieved put on military
fatigues for a daily ceremony to lower the Philippine flag at
They had been scheduled to go home three weeks ago but
Chinese ships blocked two Philippine supply vessels from
reaching them on March 9, a move protested by Manila and which
the United States described as "provocative". The Philippines
resorted to air dropping food and water instead.
"What we want to accomplish is for this area to remain ours.
This is the one thing that we are guarding here," said sergeant
Jerry Fuentes, a Philippine marine set to deploy on the BRP
China's Foreign Ministry said late on Saturday that the
action by the Philippines would not change the reality of
China's sovereignty over the shoal, which Beijing calls Ren'ai
"China will never tolerate the Philippines' occupation of
the Ren'ai reef in any form," it said.
China displays its claims to the South China Sea on official
maps with a so-called nine-dash line that stretches deep into
the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
The ships of its recently unified coastguard are a fixture
around the disputed waters. While they don't have the weaponry
of military vessels, thus reducing the risk a confrontation
could get out of control, they still represent a potent show of
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to
parts of the potentially energy-rich waters.
Raising the stakes over the South China Sea, the Philippines
will file a case against China later on Sunday at an arbitration
tribunal in The Hague, subjecting Beijing to international legal
scrutiny over the waters for the first time.
Manila is seeking a ruling to confirm its right to exploit
the waters in its EEZ as allowed under the U.N. Convention on
the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), its team of U.S. and British
lawyers have said. China has refused to participate in the case
at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by
Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Dean Yates)