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Philippines rejects China claim that use of laser pointer not meant to harm PCG crew

The Department of Foreign Affairs on Thursday rejected China's claim that its coast guard's use of laser pointer against Philippine government crew conducting a resupply mission to Ayungin shoal was merely for navigation safety purposes.

"As far as the DFA is concerned, we have no reason to doubt the Philippine Coast Guard's account of the incident," Foreign Affairs spokesperson Tess Daza told reporters.

Manila on Tuesday lodged a strongly-worded diplomatic protest against China after the Philippine Coast Guard reported that a Chinese coast guard ship on Feb. 6 pointed a "military-grade" laser light at one of its vessels to block it from approaching the shoal during a resupply mission for Filipino troops stationed there.

The incident resulted in the temporary blindness of the crewmembers of the BRP Malapascua.

The Philippines also condemned the "shadowing, harassment, dangerous maneuvers and illegal radio challenges" by the Chinese ship.

China has denied accusations of harassment and that its coast guard crew involved in the incident had a military grade laser on board the vessel, saying it used a range finder to measure its distance from the Philippine ship.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the Philippine side’s allegation "does not reflect the truth."

"During that process, the China Coast Guard ship used hand-held laser speed detector and hand-held greenlight pointer to measure the distance and speed of the Philippine vessel and signal directions to ensure navigation safety," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin at his regular press conference on Wednesday.

"We need to highlight the fact that the China Coast Guard ship did not direct lasers at the Philippine crew, and the hand-held equipment does not inflict damage on anything or anyone on the vessel."

A Philippine Naval vessel – the BRP Sierra Madre – has been grounded at Ayungin, also called by its international name, Second Thomas Shoal, since 1999. 

It is 105.77 nautical miles from the nearest Philippine province of Palawan and constitutes part of the country’s 200-nautical mile continental shelf as provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China insists that the shoal, which it calls Ren'ai Reef, is part of China's Nansha Islands or what the Philippines refers to as Spratly Islands.

For years, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and China have been locked in terrirorial disputes in the South China Sea, a vital sea lane where oil and natural gas have been discovered.

In 2013, the Philippines challenged China’s legal basis for its vast claim in the South China Sea before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands. Manila won the case in a landmark award in 2016 after the tribunal invalidated Beijing’s assertions.

China has ignored and belittled the ruling, maintaining "indisputable" and "historical" claim over nearly the entire waters.

Led by the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom expressed support for the Philippines and called out China's latest aggressive actions.

Washington has renewed its commitment to defend the Philippines, a long-time treaty ally, against aggression under an existing defense pact.

"By the mere fact that they actually followed, shadow, had dangerous maneuvers and had actually challenging phone calls as well as pointing a military laser, they were actually having provocative actions that could have endangered both the vessel and the crew in the vessel," said Daza.

Following meetings with Philippine government officials, including one where Beijing's envoy was summoned by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to Malacanang Tuesday, China vowed to properly address maritime issues with the Philippines "through friendly consultation and bilateral liaison mechanisms."

"While we agree that we should continue working together, we hope that the Chinese side would reciprocate our efforts and refrain from committing actions that do not in anyway positively contribute to our relations." 

On Wednesday, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian met with Armed Forces chief General Andres Centino following the tension in Ayungin Shoal.

In a Facebook post, Huang said they discussed military liaison exchanges and cooperation as well as maintaining “peace and stability” in the region.

“Had a cordial and constructive meeting with CSAFP General Andres C. Centino during my courtesy visit at the AFP General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City,” he said.  “We discussed matters pertaining to mil to mil exchange and cooperation as well as sustaining peace and stability in the region.” — RSJ, GMA Integrated News