What it feels like to be the target of Chinese water cannons

Filipino fishermen in wooden boats waved to our vessel, a Philippine fishing boat, from less than a mile away, but no one on our vessel dared to move. Around us were two Chinese coast guard ships and five Chinese militia ships.

Then came the water cannon.

One of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels had fired a high-intensity jet of water at our boat to prevent us from approaching fishermen near the Scarborough Shoal, a triangular chain of reefs and rocks 140 miles west of the Philippines. The explosion of water shook the ship like an earthquake at sea. “Emergency!” Armando Hachuela, the ship’s captain, shouted to the crew and reporters on deck. “Inside now!”

A New York Times reporter was among journalists invited from the Philippines on one of three vessels deployed by the country’s fisheries bureau on a mission Saturday to provide fuel to Philippine fishermen.

The Scarborough Shoal is a major flashpoint between Manila and Beijing. China claims 90% of the South China Sea, including hundreds of thousands of waters from mainland China. It took control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippines, and has maintained a constant coast guard presence there, restricting entry into the lagoon.

Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos Jr. has stepped up efforts to resist China’s blockade of these waters. He also delved into Manila’s partnerships with the United States, Japan, Canada and even Vietnam, which also claims parts of the disputed waters, to determine China. Many countries have urged Beijing to respect a 2016 ruling by an international court that invalidated China’s broad claim to the waters. China ignored the court ruling and continued its expansion in the region, building artificial islands and military outposts.

After multiple maritime clashes with Chinese vessels in recent months, the Philippines has begun inviting journalists on supply missions to the Philippine islands as part of a strategy to show how China is exerting its military might in the disputed waters.

The ships on Saturday’s mission departed from a port in the western province of Bataan, the Philippines, and arrived near the Scarborough Shoal after 18 hours in rough high seas. Two 100-meter-long Chinese coast guard ships were already there. Not long after, several Chinese militia ships joined them. The Chinese vessels prevented the Philippine vessels from reaching the fishermen, eventually colliding with at least one of the vessels in a standoff that lasted more than eight hours.

On Sunday, during a separate supply mission by the Philippines on the Sierra Madre, a rusty old ship that serves as Manila’s outpost in Second Thomas Shoal, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel fired water cannons at a Philippine supply ship Wood. The damage to the Philippine boat was so severe that it had to be towed to port.

Marcos condemned the “aggressions and provocations” by Chinese ships over the weekend and said their presence violated international law. “No one except the Philippines has a legitimate right or legal basis to operate anywhere” within the country’s exclusive economic zone, Marcos said.

China’s Coast Guard defended its actions against Philippine vessels as “professional, standardized, legitimate and legal.” In statements released over the weekend and on Monday, China warned the Philippines to “strictly control frontline provocations and not shoot itself in the foot.” The coast guard said the Philippine boat “suddenly swerved in an unprofessional and dangerous manner, and deliberately collided” with the Chinese coast guard vessel on Sunday.

During Saturday’s mission, Philippine fishing vessels moved a few meters from the shoal after being blocked by Chinese boats. Filipino fishermen then rowed out to government vessels using narrow outrigger boats and lined up to fill fuel containers.

“It’s painful,” said Dennis Maige, a fisherman who was on one of the small boats. “You see Filipinos being defeated like this in our own territory.”

Chinese Coast Guard ships then deployed an inflatable boat to patrol the area. From the deck of a Chinese militia vessel, a man shouted in Mandarin, “Go away,” just as the vessel approached the Philippine vessels. Another man followed him, also shouting in Mandarin: “Go away!”

Then, the Chinese boat hit our ship three times, damaging its railings and scraping the right side of the hull.

In total, our ship was hit by water cannons at least five times. The radar and antenna were damaged. Manila later said that China had also used a long-range acoustic device that temporarily caused severe discomfort and weakness to some of the Philippine crew, but there was no evidence of this on the ship we were on.

The clash prompted Philippine officials to abort the trip.

As the Philippine ships prepared to sail home, Chinese Coast Guard ships approached.

LED signs on the sides sent out a message, warning the Philippines: “Do not take inappropriate actions that may compromise maritime safety.”

Sui-Lee Wee AND Claire Fu contributed to the reporting.