China Coast Guard Cutter Hits Philippine Supply Boat in South China Sea

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On Sunday, a China Coast Guard cutter “rammed” a Philippine supply boat as it attempted to make the transit to Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippine military maintains a small outpost. The supply boat was unharmed and reached the garrison aboard a decaying WWII landing ship, the BRP Sierra Madre. The interaction – along with other serious damage caused by Chinese vessels over the weekend – suggests that China has a  new willingness to escalate in its recurring confrontations. 

According to PCG spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela, the cutters BRP Cabra and BRP Sindangan attempted to escort a supply convoy of two wooden boats to the shoal, as they have many times before. The convoy encountered resistance from the China Coast Guard, as expected. 

Tarriela reports that Chinese cutter CCG 5204 – a familiar presence – used its water cannon in an attempt to deter the supply boat Kalavaan. The high-pressure water cannon caused “severe damage to Kalavaan’s engines,” said Tarriela, disabling the vessel. The cutter BRP Sindangan took Kalavaan in tow and returned to the shelter of Ulugan Bay, Palawan. 

Meanwhile, the smaller Chinese cutter CCG 21556 pursued the supply boat Unaizah Mae 1. During a close-quarters interaction, 21556 “rammed” the Unaizah, according to Tarriela. Video of the scene appears to show a shouldering maneuver: the cutter’s reinforced port bow made contact with the Unaizah’s starboard quarter, nudging Unaizah while controlling the risk of hull penetration. 

The collision bore some similarity to a previous interaction at Second Thomas Shoal in October, when CCG 5203 made light contact with the Unaizah May 2’s starboard quarter. 

The resupply runs to Second Thomas Shoal typically involve tense standoffs between the China Coast Guard and the Philippine Coast Guard. China claims ownership of the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters, including areas within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, like Second Thomas Shoal. Beijing has repeatedly ordered Manila to withdraw from the BRP Sierra Madre, but Philippine forces have held out, thanks to high-risk missions like Sunday’s. 

In previous confrontations, Chinese forces have used aggressive maneuvering, water cannons, acoustic devices (LRAD) and laser target illuminators to deter Philippine supply boats. The PCG has long warned that these tactics increase the risk of collision.

Tarriela noted that Second Thomas Shoal is a low-tide elevation, not a habitable island capable of supporting a sovereignty claim, and he emphasized that it lies within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague dismissed Chinese assertions of sovereignty over Philippine waters.

“The systematic and consistent manner in which the People’s Republic of China carries out these illegal and irresponsible actions puts into question and significant doubt the sincerity of its calls for peaceful dialogue. Peace and stability cannot be achieved without due regard for the legitimate, well-established, and legally settled rights of others,” said Tarriela. 

Multiple encounters

Sunday’s run-in at Second Thomas Shoal was just one of three menacing encounters between Philippine vessels and Chinese “gray zone” forces over the weekend. 

On Saturday, during a mission to support Philippine fishermen at disputed Scarborough Shoal, civilian boats from the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ran into opposition from the China Coast Guard. CCG cutters used water cannons and Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs, also known as sound cannons) on three of the bureau’s boats. The LRADs performed as designed, incapacitating some crewmembers and causing others temporary discomfort. The CCG also deployed small boat crews and strung a new floating barrier across the entrance to the shoal. 

“The aggression and provocations perpetrated by the China Coast Guard and their Chinese Maritime Militia against our vessels and personnel over the weekend have only further steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty,” said Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in a statement. “Bajo de Masinloc is sovereign Philippine territory and an integral part of our archipelago. No one but the Philippines has a legitimate right or legal basis to operate anywhere in the West Philippine Sea. The illegal presence in our waters and dangerous actions against our citizens is an outright and blatant violation of international law and the rules-based international order.”

A civilian “humanitarian” convoy operated by activist group Atin Ito (“This Is Ours”) had also planned to visit Philippine outposts in the Spratly Islands in order to deliver Christmas gifts and supplies. The Philippine government had attempted to discourage the civilian convoy for months, citing the risk that unprepared citizens might run in encounters with Chinese forces. On Sunday, after “constant shadowing of four Chinese vessels” – including two PLA Navy warships – the Atin Ito convoy decided to turn around and head back to Palawan. The decision was taken in consultation with the Philippine Coast Guard, organizers said. 

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