A Philippine government ship slipped past a Chinese coastguard blockade yesterday and brought food and fresh troops to a marooned navy ship used as a base by Philippine troops to bolster the country's territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
The cat-and-mouse-like confrontation was witnessed by journalists, who were allowed by the Philippine military to board the government vessel to show what Manila has said is "China's bullying" in the disputed waters.
The two-hour stand-off was the latest in a series of escalations in a dispute between the two countries over their competing claims to waters and islands close to Philippine land mass.
The incident took place at Second Thomas Shoal, where a small number of Philippine soldiers are stationed on a navy vessel that was grounded there in 1999 to assert the Philippines' sovereignty.
Second Thomas Shoal is part of the Spratlys, a chain of islets that sit near key shipping lanes, surrounded by rich fishing grounds that are believed to lie atop huge oil and gas reserves.
Four Chinese vessels had encircled Second Thomas Shoal as the Philippine vessel approached. Two of the vessels then chased the Philippine boat and tried to stop it reaching the shoal.
The vessels appeared to get within a few hundred metres of each other, with one of the Chinese vessels sailing across the Philippine vessel's bow twice. Another tailed the Philippine boat.
The Chinese radioed the Filipinos, telling them to stop. "You will take full responsibility for the consequences of your action," the voice said in English. "This is the Republic of the Philippines," Philippine navy Lieutenant Ferdinand Gato, who was in charge of the supply mission, replied.
"We are here to provision the troops."
The marines on board the supply boat waved the "V" for peace sign toward the Chinese vessel.
The Filipino captain manoeuvred his vessel to shallow waters where the Chinese ships couldn't sail to reach the marooned vessel, BRP Sierra Madre, which has become an awkward symbol of Philippine sovereignty in the remote offshore territory.
On March 9, Chinese vessels blocked a resupply mission to the shoal, called Ayungin by the Philippines.
Philippine air force planes have airdropped food and water at least twice since then.
As they approached the shoal, one of the marines raised the Philippine flag on the supply ship.
Once inside the shoal, the marines and the crew applauded and exchanged high-fives.
"Our policy is maximum tolerance," Gato said. "I will not let them stop us because our marines will starve."
The supply ship carried about 10 tonnes of food, including rice, canned goods and water, Gato said. The provisions were placed in sacks and transferred to the marooned ship using ropes pulled with pulleys.
"They were able to pass through. The Chinese coastguard vessel and the mission is a success," Cherryl Tindog, a spokeswoman for the military's western command, said. "We have successfully resupplied and rotated the troops."
The Philippine foreign affairs department denounced the Chinese action.
"We condemn the harassment by the Chinese coastguard of our civilian vessels which are on their way to Ayungin Shoal to resupply provisions to our personnel stationed there," it said, using the Filipino name for the outcrop.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei last night characterised the latest move by the Philippines as a move to keep its claim to the area alive. He said it could not shake China's determination to defend its territory.
Yesterday's confrontation occurred a day before the Philippines was due to file its case with a United Nations tribunal to challenge China's territorial claim to most of the South China Sea.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse