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China-Philippines tensions rise over water cannon incident in South China Sea

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An incident in the South China Sea over the weekend has heightened tensions in a region already on edge. A Chinese Coast Guard ship fired a water cannon at a Philippine boat trying to resupply a military outpost on a disputed reef. That reef is inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, but China claims it and almost all of the sea as its own, even though a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal rejected that claim. On Tuesday, China's foreign ministry demanded that Manila withdraw from its makeshift outpost on the reef. The Philippine government responded that same day - never. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Calling the clapped out, decommissioned warship the Sierra Madre an outpost is charitable at best.

BLAKE HERZINGER: It is a rusting tank-landing ship that the United States gave to the Philippines Navy decades ago. When it became unserviceable as a ship, they effectively beached it on that shoal, and it is still there. It is disintegrating around the Marines that are based there. And they have to bring food and water to those troops because they cannot feed and house themselves.

SULLIVAN: That's Blake Herzinger, a research fellow in the Foreign Policy and Defence Program at the University of Sydney. He says Beijing has been interfering with those resupply efforts for years as it pursued its territorial expansion in the South China Sea, hoping to get Manila to abandon the outpost. But he says the use of water cannon has been rare and carries risk.

HERZINGER: When people hear water cannon, you know, they shouldn't hear water gun or garden hose. You know, these are high-power water cannons. They can harm people severely. And depending on who's on that ship, you're harming, you know, representatives of the Philippines government. You know, yes, you are looking at a very steep potential escalatory curve.

SULLIVAN: For the past several years, Manila has largely downplayed similar incidents, in part because of former President Rodrigo Duterte's tilt toward Beijing. But since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office, Manila has been pushing back, especially after a Chinese ship aimed a laser at a Philippine vessel in February.

COLLIN KOH: You may recall that in the recent months after the laser pointing incident, the Philippine Coast Guard made it very clear that from now on, they are going to publicize those incidents.

SULLIVAN: Collin Koh is a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He says Manila's more muscular - or at least more vocal - response to Chinese bullying is influenced in part by the reimaged Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between Washington and Manila that languished under President Duterte. And when Manila tries again to resupply the Sierra Madre, he expects it might get a little help.

KOH: I don't envisage, you know, there will be an American escort for that on the surface, but it might potentially be, you know, some other type of support - like, say, you know, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support or other types of support that I may not know about.

SULLIVAN: Joint patrols between the Philippines and its regional allies - the U.S., Australia and others - could be another option if Beijing continues its harassment of Philippine vessels. But neither analyst expects any further escalation in the short term, though the possibility of an accident and subsequent escalation remains. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.