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The Philippines has accused China of targeting one of its coast guard vessels with a military-grade laser in the South China Sea, as Beijing’s almost-constant presence in the contested waters raises regional tensions.

The Chinese coast guard ship directed the laser at the BRP Malapascua twice on February 6, “causing temporary blindness to [the] crew at the bridge”, the Philippine Coast Guard said on Monday. The incident happened in Ayungin Shoal, a Philippine-controlled land feature also known as Second Thomas Shoal, it added.

China’s use of lasers was thrust into the spotlight a year ago when Australia and Canada accused a Chinese naval vessel of directing a laser at their military aircraft. Although the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which China has signed, only explicitly bans the use of lasers against pilots, targeting ships can also undermine safety, according to military and coast guard officials.

China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, an assertion dismissed by a 2016 arbitration ruling as having no basis in international law.

The latest incident comes as confrontations between Chinese vessels and those of other South China Sea claimant states have become almost nonstop. China’s coast guard patrolled Second Thomas Shoal for 279 days last year, up from 232 days in 2021, according to the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, a research group at US think-tank CSIS.

The China Coast Guard, the world’s largest, has become more assertive after Beijing authorised it to fire on foreign ships in disputed waters. The service added 22 ships from China’s navy last year.

Ship tracking data showed Chinese vessels repeatedly shadowing or blocking Philippine Coast Guard ships near Second Thomas Shoal last year. Chinese patrols were seen around Vanguard Bank, where Vietnam is exploring for oil, almost year-round in 2022.

Manila said the BRP Malapascua was supporting a rotation of sailors and resupply for the Philippine Navy when it was targeted. The Philippines retains a naval outpost on the BRP Sierra Madre, a second-world-war-era US Navy tank landing ship recommissioned to Manila more than 50 years ago and deliberately run aground on the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999.

Between February 1 and 7, the BRP Malapascua repeatedly changed course in apparent attempts to evade Chinese coast guard vessels, according to tracking data. During that period, the number of Chinese coast guard ships in the area increased from one to three.

“The deliberate blocking of the Philippine government ships . . . is a blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights,” the coast guard said in a statement.

China’s foreign ministry did not address the use of the laser but accused the Philippine Coast Guard vessel of “trespassing without China’s permission” into the waters around the shoal.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the land feature “a part of China’s Nansha Islands”, as Beijing refers to the Spratly Islands, and said the Chinese vessels had acted to safeguard China’s sovereignty and maritime order. “Operations were conducted in a professional and restrained manner,” he said.

The US and its allies have in recent years stepped up efforts to enable the Philippines and Vietnam to monitor and push back against China’s aggression in the South China Sea.

Japan is providing ships and training to the Philippine Coast Guard and is seeking a reciprocal military access agreement with Manila, which would enable the countries to participate in each other’s exercises.

Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr told local media on his return home from a visit to Japan on Sunday night that he was in favour of such a deal if it helped protect the country’s waters and fishermen.

But in a reminder of his administration’s efforts to maintain stable relations with China, he added that Manila would weigh the risk of inflaming tensions.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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