China Coast Guard Impounds Philippine Navy Boats, Seizes Firearms in Latest Second Thomas Shoal Incident

June 19, 2024 1:12 PM - Updated: June 19, 2024 4:25 PM
Philippine RHIBs are surrounded and boarded by the China Coast Guard at Second Thomas Shoal. AFP Photo

Chinese forces seized Philippine small boats and firearms during Monday’s botched resupply attempt to BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57) at Second Thomas Shoal, Philippine military officials confirmed.

Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Romeo Brawner slammed the actions of the China Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, describing their acts as “piracy” in a press briefing in Palawan on Wednesday.

“They have no right, or legal authority, to hijack our operations and destroy Philippine vessels operating within our exclusive economic zone,” said Brawner.

Brawner’s visit to Palawan included a visit to service members wounded in the incident. Navy seaman First Class Jeffrey Facundo, who lost his thumb in a highspeed collision with a Chinese rubber-hulled inflated boat, was awarded a Wounded Personnel Medal by the military chief. A similar visit was conducted in March following the first instance Philippine personnel were injured by Chinese actions around Second Thomas Shoal.

According to Western Command chief Rear Adm. Alfonso Torres, the personnel rotation and resupply operation was a new “operational design” being employed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This included the use of a new chartered civilian vessel, the ML Lapu Lapu. Images from Chinese state media of the vessel being swarmed by maritime militia ships reveal metal coverings on the vessel’s windshield and other windows.

Torres claimed that the Chinese RHIBs closed in on the Philippine small boats while they were next to Sierra Madre, during a period when they were vulnerable. The boats were “deliberately punctured” by Chinese personnel using knives and other pointed tools.

A video of the incident shows seven small boats surrounding RHIBs next to Sierra Madre. According to the Philippine military, the China Coast Guard used blaring sirens and strobe lights to disorient the personnel. Tear gas and rocks were also thrown at and onto the Philippine vessels. A Chinese military aircraft was also claimed to be flying overhead in what was described as “a further display of excessive force and intimidation.”

A Philippine Navy RHIB transporting supplies, including seven disassembled and packaged CAR-15 rifles, was towed away from Sierra Madre, surrounded on by Chinese vessels and boarded. An image released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines shows multiple China Coast Guard personnel pointing batons and knives during the boarding action. While a brief fight occurred during this time, in which Brawner said the troops resisted with their “bare hands,” the Philippine personnel were eventually subdued. Marines on board Sierra Madre were seen throwing water at Chinese coast guardsmen during the encounter.

Multiple Philippine vessels were damaged in the incident, with damages including punctured hulls, smashed navigational equipment and destroyed motors.

The firearms and equipment seized by China have yet to be returned despite requests from the Philippines. “We are demanding that the Chinese return our rifles and our equipment. We are also demanding from them to pay for the damages they have caused,” said Brawner.

Philippine military leadership commended the restraint exercised by the navy personnel despite being outnumbered in both men and material. Brawner also emphasized that while personnel onboard Sierra Madre were armed, they did not want to escalate the situation, stating that “our objective is to prevent war.”

“Despite facing overwhelming numbers and harassment from the CCG, Filipino troops valiantly fought back and defended their position. The AFP maintains professionalism and steadfast commitment to uphold international law and preserve peace in the region,” reads an Armed Forces of the Philippines statement.

Two Philippine Coast Guard were in the area to support the military-led operation. Commandant Ronnie Gil Gavan said the Coast Guard was part of the mission’s “humanitarian element,” citing their help in rescue operations and the towing of disabled Philippine vessels after the incident. Gavan also noted the efforts of the Angels of the Sea, a unit of female Philippine Coast Guard operators, in deescalating the situation.

Monday’s incident at Second Thomas Shoal is the latest and most intense encounter between Manila and Beijing over the disputed South China Sea feature. Since March, Chinese forces have deployed more aggressive actions against Philippine resupply missions to the Second World War-era Sierra Madre, a beached landing ship used by Marines as an outpost.

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa is a freelance defense journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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