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China, Philippines war of words over South China Sea 'raises hot conflict risk', observer says

China and the Philippines’ intensifying blame game over twin collisions in the disputed South China Sea is heightening the risks of armed conflict that could draw in the United States, a Chinese observer has warned.

This comes as both sides dial up the accusations over the two incidents on Sunday (Oct 22) involving coastguard boats from either side.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning on Monday accused the Philippines of provocation “by repeatedly intruding into the Renai Jiao and continuing to spread disinformation”.

Renai Jiao is the Chinese name for the Second Thomas Shoal – called Ayungin Shoal by the Philippines – an area in the South China Sea where the collisions took place. It is part of the Spratly Islands, known as the Nansha Islands in Chinese and claimed by both countries.

The incidents could represent a tipping point for ties between Beijing and the US’ oldest ally in Asia, warned Ding Duo, an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

The Philippine defence minister earlier accused the Chinese coastguard of having “harassed and intentionally hit” its resupply ship and a Philippine Coast Guard vessel.

“We are here to really decry in the strongest possible terms this egregious violation and illegal act within the (Philippines’) 200 nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone and the obfuscation of the truth by China’s distorting the story to fit its own ends,” Gilbert Teodoro said in Manila on Monday.

While China has dismissed the encounter as a “slight collision”, Philippine Coast Guard Commodore Jay Tarriela said on Monday that the damage to the resupply ship amounted to “more than a scratch”.

The Philippines summoned the Chinese ambassador on Monday to lodge a diplomatic protest, while Beijing’s embassy in Manila also said it had filed a similar complaint.

Sunday’s face-offs came just ahead of the latest round of negotiations regarding a code of conduct in the South China Sea, where Beijing and Manila are among rival claimants. The talks, which started on Monday in Beijing, are aimed at preventing major armed conflicts in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the Second Thomas Shoal, which has become the latest flashpoint in the resource-rich waterway, with frequent run-ins between Chinese and Philippine boats in recent months.

China has repeatedly blocked the Philippines from resupplying construction materials to the shoal, where Manila has kept a rusty World War II-era ship since 1999 to stake its claims to the waters.

No injuries were reported in the collisions on Sunday, but it was the first time in recent years that physical clashes had taken place, putting the dispute under the spotlight.

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Ding at the South China Sea studies institute, in China’s southern Hainan province, warned of the impact on bilateral ties.

“Over the past years, the two sides have managed to control their differences well, so there is an unspoken agreement on how to deal with the disputes at sea,” he said. “But now, such agreements have been broken.”

Ding said the face-off could damage bilateral trust and affect the ongoing and long-awaited code of conduct talks.

“There would be less frankness in the negotiations.”

The South China Sea is a busy trade route crucial to countries in Southeast and East Asia, and an escalation there would raise the risks of drawing in the United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines for more than 70 years.

Under their 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty, the US is obliged to defend the Philippines if its forces, ships and aircraft come under armed attack, including “those of its coastguard – anywhere in the South China Sea”.

The commitment was reaffirmed in a statement released by the US State Department after the collisions on Sunday.

The same day, the US also conducted its first-ever trilateral aerial exercise with Japan and South Korea, in response to evolving North Korean nuclear threats.

However, “it remains to be seen how much the US would like to see a conflict between China and the Philippines go out of control”, Ding said.

According to Philippine officials, about five Chinese coastguard ships, eight accompanying vessels and two navy ships formed a blockade on Sunday to prevent two Philippine coastguard ships and two boats from delivering food and other supplies to forces stationed at Second Thomas Shoal.

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