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Chinese coast guard hits Philippine boat with water cannons in disputed sea, causing injuries

Chinese coast guard ships hit a Philippine supply boat with water cannons Saturday in the latest confrontation near a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, causing injuries to its navy crew members and heavy damage to the wooden vessel, Philippine officials said.

The United States and Japan immediately expressed their support to the Philippines, as well as alarm over Chinese forces' aggression off the Second Thomas Shoal, which has been the scene of repeated confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels over the past year.

The far-flung shoal has been occupied by a small contingent of Philippine navy and marines on a marooned warship since 1999, but has been surrounded by Chinese coast guard and suspected militia vessels in an increasingly tense territorial standoff. It's the second time the Philippine boat Unaizah May 4 has been damaged by the Chinese coast guard's water cannon assault in March alone.

The repeated high-seas confrontations have sparked fears they could degenerate into a larger conflict that could bring China and the United States into a collision.

Washington lays no claims to the busy seaway, a key global trade route, but has deployed Navy ships and fighter jets in what it calls "freedom of navigation" operations, which China has criticized.

The U.S. has also warned repeatedly that it's obligated to defend the Philippines -- its oldest treaty ally in Asia -- if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea.

Escorted by two Philippine coast guard ships, the Unaizah May 4 was en route to deliver supplies and a fresh batch of Filipino sailors to the territorial outpost in the shoal at dawn Saturday when they were blocked and surrounded by Chinese coast guard ships and suspected militia vessels.

"Their reckless and dangerous actions culminated with the water cannoning of Unaizah May 4, causing severe damage to the vessel and injuries to Filipinos onboard," a Philippine government task force dealing with the territorial conflicts said without elaborating.

The two Philippine coast guard patrol ships maneuvered through the Chinese blockade to treat the injured Filipino crew members