The United States has criticised Beijing for being provocative after a Chinese coastguard tried to block a Philippine vessel on Saturday that was rotating troops on a islet among the Spratlys archipelago in the tense South China Sea.
In response Chinese state media on Tuesday accused the Philippines of violating morality and international law by seeking United Nations arbitration in the dispute.
The attempted Chinese blockade, which led to a two-hour stand-off with the Philippine ship, is “a provocative and destabilising action,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Harf said that the Philippines had permission to resupply troops to the remote reef, the Second Thomas Shoal, because it has kept a naval presence there since before a 2002 declaration of conduct in the South China Sea.
“As a treaty ally of the Republic of the Philippines, the United States urges China to refrain from further provocative behaviour by allowing the Philippines to continue to maintain its presence at Second Thomas Shoal,” she said.
The incident was the latest in the South China Sea, where China claims a vast area that overlaps with several neighbours’ claims.
On March 9, China successfully turned away a similar resupply boat from the Philippines.
Manila on Sunday asked a UN tribunal to rule on Beijing’s claims over most of the strategically significant sea, submitting nearly 4,000 pages of evidence to back its case.
It argues that the Chinese stance is illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and interferes with the Philippines’ sovereign rights to its continental shelf.
Both countries are signatories to UNCLOS, but Beijing argues that its provisions do not apply to the row.
In a commentary the People’s Daily, the Communist Party official mouthpiece, denounced Manila’s move.
“The act of the Philippine side is against the international law and the historical truth as well as against morality and basic rules of international relations,” it said.
Manila had “provoked China” by going to “so-called international arbitration, a move that is both illegal and unreasonable” and “an act lacking credibility”, it said.
The commentary was reported in English by the official news agency Xinhua, often an indication that authorities want it to reach a wider audience.
China – which is vastly more powerful than any of the several countries it has disputes with in the strategically significant waters – prefers to negotiate with them individually, rather than in international forums.
“The Philippines attempted to solicit international sympathy through disguising itself as a small and weak country,” the commentary said.
Manila was attempting “to legalise its invasion of Chinese islands through the arbitration”, it added.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino vowed on Monday to press ahead with the legal appeal.
“We are not here to challenge China, to provoke them into any action, but I do believe that they should recognise we also have the right to defend our own interests,” he told reporters.
The United States has been warning China against taking more drastic action in the South China Sea after it declared an air defence identification zone in November over much of the East China Sea, including islands administered by Japan.