Philippine Coast Guard Cutters, Chinese Warship Almost Collide in South China Sea

May 1, 2023 4:40 PM
BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4402)

A People’s Liberation Army Navy corvette challenged two Philippine Coast Guard cutters during a patrol in the South China Sea, according to officials in Manilla.

The Philippine Coast Guard ships also reported aggressive maneuvers by China Coast Guard vessels, in addition to identifying over 100 Chinese Maritime Militia ships operating in the area of its patrol, according to the release.

PCG patrol vessels BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4402) and BRP Malabrigo (MRRV-4403) patrolled the waters off Sabina Shoal, Iroquis Reef, Lawak, Patag, Likas, Parola, Pag-asa, Tizzard Bank, Julian Felipe Reef, and Ayungin Shoal between April 18-24. The ships encountered a PLAN Type 054A frigate, hull number 549, 7 nautical miles from Pag-asa Island, internationally known as Thitu Island and part of the disputed Spratly Islands, on April 21.

The hull number identifies the frigate as CNS Changzhou (549).

China, Taiwan and Vietnam do not recognize the Philippines’ sovereignty claims over its holdings in the Spratlys. Chinese ships routinely operate within the 12 mile territorial sea limit claimed by the Philippines in regard to its holdings.

Changzhou contacted the Philippine Coast Guard vessels by radio and directed them to leave the area, warning that a failure to comply could lead to a problem, according to the release. The cutters replied that they were asserting their rights to carry out operations within the territorial sea of Pag-asa Island and asked the PLAN ship to leave the area immediately. The release did not mention what occurred following the communication between the ships.

On April 23, two Chinese Coast Guard ships, CCG 5201 and CCG 4202 intercepted Philippine Coast Guard ships in the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal (known internationally as Second Thomas Shoal), where the Philippines maintains an outpost consisting of the grounded Philippine Navy landing ship tank BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57) and manned by a dozen Philippine Marines.

CNS Changzhou in 2011

Both CCG ships acted aggressively with CCG 5201 carrying out dangerous maneuvers near Malapascua, maintaining a distance of only 50 yards, according to the Philippine release.

Embarked media reported and filmed a near collision between the two ships when the CCG . The Philippines ship stopped its engines and reversed, averting a potential collision.

Meanwhile, CCG 4202 persistently followed Malabrigo at a distance of 700 yards, closely monitoring its movements, according to the release.

The Philippines also detected 18 Chinese Maritime Militia ships near Sabina Shoal. Despite numerous radio challenges by the PCG, the CMM did not respond or comply with the order to leave the area immediately.

Four additional CMM vessels, which appeared to be engaged in fishing activities, were successfully driven away by the PCG vessels from the territorial sea of Pag-asa, at a distance of four nautical miles, according to the release.

The Filipino ships also observed 17 groups of Chinese Maritime Militia ships in the vicinity of Julian Felipe Reef, with an estimated total count exceeding 100 vessels.

In response, the PCG ships deployed their Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB) to disperse the large CMM gathering, although the vessels did not react or leave, according to the release.

China asserts that the Ren’ai Reef (Ayungin Shoal) is part of China’s claim to the Spratly Islands, which would make the two PCG ships intruders, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning said during a Friday press briefing.

Mao said it was one of the PCG ships that made provocative moves and closed in on a Chinese ship. The CCG ship upheld China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order by making timely maneuvers to dodge the dangerously approaching Philippine vessel and avoid a collision, she said.

The Chinese side’s maneuvers were professional and restrained, she said. The Chinese spokesperson accused the Philippines Coast Guard of a premeditated provocation by intruding with a PCG ship carrying embarked journalists, designed to deliberately create a friction that would be blamed on China and hyped up in the media

“China strongly protests and deplores this,” Mao said. “We urge the Philippine side to respect China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and stop making moves that might complicate the situation.”

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr, called for the final adoption of a Philippines-China direct communication line in the wake of the near collision between the Philippine and Chinese ships, according to a release from Marcos Sunday press conference. Marcos is currently in the United States for an official visit.

“This is the kind of thing that… we’re hoping to avoid, that this time it was a little more dangerous because they were close,” Marcos said in the release.

Both Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier affirmed the establishment of a direct communication mechanism during the Filipino leader’s official state visit to Bejing in January.

Marcos stated that the Philippines had already created a team and had submitted the names, along with the phone numbers of its team, but was waiting for China to provide the details as to who will be on the team.

PLAN ships have also been sailing in the vicinity of Japan, according to Monday releases by the Joint Staff Office (JSO) of the Ministry of Defense.

PLAN frigate CNS Jingzhou (532) was sighted around 2 p.m. Saturday, sailing southeast in an area 140km northeast of Miyako Island, Around three hours later, destroyer CNS Zibo (156) and fleet oiler CNS Qiandaohu (886) were sighted sailing southeast in an area 140km northeast of Miyako Island.

The three PLAN ships then sailed together southeast through the Miyako Strait.

Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) minesweeper JS Toyoshima (MSC-685) and a JMSDF P-3C Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) of Fleet Air Wing 5 stationed at Naha Air Base, Okinawa, monitored the PLAN ships, according to the JSO release.

The three ships form the PLAN’s 44th Naval Escort Task Force and are on their way to the Gulf of Aden to relieve the 43rd Naval Escort Task Force.

Since 2009, China has continuously deployed a task force for anti-piracy escort missions for Chinese ships in the Gulf of Aden with the 43rd Escort Task Force also recently carrying out an evacuation of Chinese citizens from Sudan.

PLAN Dongdia-class intelligence ship Kaiyangxing (796) was sighted at 8 a.m. Saturday sailing northeast in an area 180km southwest of the Goto Islands and subsequently transited through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan.

Multipurpose support ship JS Amakusa (AMS-4303) and a JMSDF P-1 MPA of Fleet Air Wing 4 based at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Honshu, monitored the PLAN ship.

Five PLAN ships were sighted sailing northeast in an area 130km west of the Goto Islands, midnight Sunday. The PLAN Surface Action Group (SAG) consisted of cruiser CNS Lhasa (102), destroyers CNS Guiyang (119) and CNS Qiqihar (121), frigate CNS Zaozhuang (542) and fleet oiler CNS Taihu (889). The PLAN SAG then transited through the Tsushima Strait to enter the Sea of Japan.

Amakusa, minesweeper JS Yakushima (MSC-602) and a JMSDF P-1 MPA of Fleet Air Wing 1 based at JMSDF Kanoya Air Base, Kyushu, shadowed the PLAN ships.

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defense journalist and analyst based in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. Among the publications he has written for and currently writes for since 1998 includes Defence Review Asia, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Navy International, International Defence Review, Asian Defence Journal, Defence Helicopter, Asian Military Review and the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter.

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