In a recent confrontation in the South China Sea, 38 Chinese ships tailed and encircled a group of Philippine vessels heading for the Southeast Asian country's naval outpost on a disputed shoal earlier this month on a resupply mission.

At the break of dawn on Nov. 10, the Chinese fleet appeared in a formation on the horizon in the contested waters as the Philippine ships headed for Second Thomas Shoal.

A Philippine Coast Guard patrol boat is tailed by a suspected Chinese maritime militia vessel (L) in the South China Sea on Nov. 10, 2023. (Kyodo)

Tensions between Manila and Beijing have been growing over the shoal following a series of China's aggressive actions against Philippine ships sailing to it since earlier this year.

Reporters of Kyodo News and 15 other media organizations on board three Philippine Coast Guard ships, which accompanied two navy-chartered boats delivering food and other supplies to the outpost, witnessed the dangerous maneuvers by the Chinese fleet.

The China Coast Guard ships and several fishing boats with the Chinese flag hoisted, suspected to be maritime militia, cut across the path of the Philippine supply boats and coast guard ships, moving in a coordinated manner.

As the Chinese fleet constantly changed its formation, the Philippine vessels found themselves encircled. One China Coast Guard ship, for example, came within about 140 meters of a Philippine Coast Guard ship named Melchora Aquino, carrying some of the reporters.

A crewman on the deck of the 97-meter multi-role response vessel, which the Philippines acquired from Japan last year, monitored the approach of one of the Chinese boats while carrying a portable radio receiver.

"It's 30 meters!" exclaimed the crewman, who then rushed to the other side of the ship to discover another Chinese ship closing in on it. At such proximity, crew on the Chinese ships could be seen taking photos of the unfolding scene.

As tensions mounted, the Chinese ships blew their horns numerous times in an apparent warning to leave the waters.

A China Coast Guard ship (back) sails close to a Philippine Coast Guard patrol boat in the South China Sea on Nov. 10, 2023. (Kyodo)

The cat-and-mouse encounters continued, and it was not until hours later that the Philippine vessels managed to throw off the Chinese boats, averting a repeat of an Oct. 22 collision.

As other Philippine vessels also successfully fended off the chase, the navy outpost on the submerged shoal, which hosts an old warship intentionally grounded by the Philippines in 1999, finally came into view from the Melchora Aquino around 8 a.m.

The two boats reached the reef and delivered the supplies to navy personnel stationed on the rust-colored ship surrounded by turquoise water.

Even after the completion of the resupply mission, the Philippine vessels, which started heading back at noon, were followed by the Chinese ships again until they returned to port in the western Philippine island of Palawan past midnight.

Philippine Coast Guard officials later said it monitored 38 Chinese vessels, including four Chinese navy ships and a hospital ship from afar, during the mission. It marked the largest assembly of ships gathered to harass Philippine boats going to the shoal.

Photo taken on Nov. 10, 2023, shows people aboard a suspected Chinese maritime militia vessel looking at a Philippine Coast Guard ship that was sailing nearby in the South China Sea. (Kyodo)

The officials also said one of the Chinese Coast Guard ships blasted a water cannon toward a Philippine boat, but it failed to hit it and caused no damage.

During the tense, hours-long faceoff, the China Coast Guard ships issued a total of 172 radio warnings to the three Philippine Coast Guard ships, they added.

Following this incident, China lodged a complaint with the Philippine Embassy in Beijing, claiming five Philippine vessels "intruded into" waters near the shoal and "severely undermined China's sovereignty," with a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman urging Manila to "immediately stop provocations on the sea."

The Philippines protested the China Coast Guard's use of a water cannon, saying it "put the lives of our people at risk," and called into question "the sincerity of (China's) calls for peaceful dialogue."

The Philippine Coast Guard said it invited the reporters onboard the ships as part of a campaign to reveal China's escalating harassment in the South China Sea.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, a Philippine Coast Guard spokesman, told a Nov. 11 press conference, "I believe that our effort in transparency initiative has been very successful in rallying support from the international community to condemn the illegal actions of China and to make the Filipino people aware of what's happening."

The Chinese Coast Guard aimed a military-grade laser at a Philippine supply boat in February and fired a water cannon in August. In the Oct. 22 collision, one of the Philippine boats was damaged by a China Coast Guard ship.

Beijing has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the South China Sea, home to some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Besides China and the Philippines, the disputes over the sea involve Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Photo taken on Nov. 10, 2023, shows a U.S. military reconnaissance plane flying over a China Coast Guard ship in the South China Sea. (Kyodo)

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China's sweeping claims in the sea, but Beijing rejected the decision and has continued its military buildup in the area.

Amid concerns that repeated confrontations near the shoal could develop into a conflict, Tarriela said the Philippine Coast Guard will not take any step that could escalate the tensions, stressing Manila will continue to abide by international law.

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