China Coast Guard in "Dangerous" Close Encounter in S. China Sea

Courtesy Philippine Coast Guard

Published Apr 27, 2023 10:14 PM by The Maritime Executive

Tensions between Chinese forces and the Philippine Coast Guard are a matter of routine in the Spratly Islands, where China has been gradually extending its presence by force for the past decade. The China Coast Guard, PLA Navy and the paramilitary Chinese maritime militia are a constant presence in waters claimed by the Philippines, and often clash with Philippine forces in a contest for dominance over reefs, islands and fishery resources. In the latest run-in, a large China Coast Guard cutter cut across the bow of a Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel at Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, a frequent flash point. 

Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessels Malabrigo and Malapascua approached the reef on Sunday, with foreign journalists on board. As is typical at the site, there were two China Coast Guard vessels on scene standing guard. The Malapascua's crew broadcast their intentions to approach a grounded Philippine Navy wreck on the island, BRP Sierra Madre, which houses a small garrison of Philippine troops. 

As the Malapascua approached Second Thomas Shoal, CCG cutter 5201 cut across its bow from the starboard side. To reinforce the point, the 5201 broadcast a notice over VHF that "China has indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters." (The CCG's cutters are generally nameless, and the pennant number is the sole identifier.)

The commanding officer of Malapascua described the interaction as a "dangerous" COLREGS violation and told reporters that he ordered engines astern in order to prevent a collision. "They do that kind of blockade. It's one of the harassments that China does," he said. 

The encounter was just the latest in a long string of run-ins at Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippine outpost on the island is a beached WWII-era Landing Ship Tank (LST), which the Philippine Navy intentionally grounded in 1999 to form a makeshift shelter. Chinese vessels have often blocked Philippine convoys to the base in the past, including a five-month period in 2013-14 in which no support vessels could get through. In February, the same Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel involved in Sunday's run-in - BRP Malapascua - was flashed with a "military grade" green laser from a China Coast Guard cutter in the same area. 

China has built massive military outposts on multiple reefs and islands claimed by Manila in the Spratly chain, and the Philippine government is concerned that Second Thomas Shoal might be the next in line if its small garrison gets pushed out. For now, efforts to keep it secured and supplied continue.