The Philippines has accused a Chinese coast guard ship of hitting a Philippine coast guard vessel with a military-grade laser and temporarily blinding some of its crew in the disputed South China Sea.
In an incident which it called a “blatant” violation of Manila’s sovereign rights, the Chinese ship reportedly manoeuvered dangerously close, about 137m (449ft), to block the Philippine patrol vessel BRP Malapascua from approaching Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef that has been occupied by Philippine forces.
The Philippines filed nearly 200 diplomatic protests against China’s aggressive actions in the disputed waters in 2022 alone.
A Philippine statement on the 6 February incident said: “The Chinese ship illuminated the green laser light twice toward the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge.”
A video issued by the coast guard in Manila shows a Chinese coast guard ship cutting across the path of a Philippine vessel from a distance. A green laser-like light is later emitted by the Chinese ship.
The Philippine military said it was time for China to restrain its forces from committing “any provocative act that will endanger the lives of people”.
Spokesman Colonel Medel Aguilar told reporters that the Philippine defence chief deemed the Chinese coast guard’s action “offensive and unsafe”.
China claims the South China Sea virtually in its entirety, putting it on a collision course with other claimants.
Despite friendly overtures to Beijing by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who met Chinese leader Xi Jinping in January in Beijing, tensions have persisted, creating a closer military alliance between the Philippines and the US.
Although the Chinese coast guard has tried to block Philippine coast guard ships in the disputed waters before, this was the first time it used lasers and caused physical suffering among Filipino personnel, Philippine coast guard spokesperson Commodore Armand Balilo told The Associated Press.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said a Philippine coast guard vessel trespassed into Chinese waters without permission.
Chinese coast guard vessels responded “professionally and with restraint at the site in accordance with China’s law and international law,” he said, without elaborating or mentioning the use of laser.
“We hope the Philippines will earnestly respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and avoid any actions that may lead to the expansion of the dispute and complication of the situation,” Mr Wang said in reply to a question at a daily media briefing.
“China and the Philippines are maintaining communication through diplomatic channels in this regard.”
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the resource-rich and busy waterway, where a bulk of the world’s commerce and oil transits.
The United States lays no claims to the disputed sea but has deployed forces to patrol the waters to promote freedom of navigation and overflight – moves that have angered Beijing, which has warned Washington to stop meddling in what it says is a purely Asian dispute.