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The Philippines and China Issue Competing Statements About Incident at Second Thomas Shoal

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin completed his undergraduate and graduate education at a Texas university and has studied extensively in China. As a former Marine Corps intelligence analyst, he worked in the Indo-Pacific region. His areas of expertise include PLA modernization, particularly PLAN/PLANMC and its expeditionary capabilities, as well as CCP and Chinese domestic politics. He also runs the Sino Talk brand on Instagram and Twitter and is the IndoPacific Desk Chief for Atlas.

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On June 17th, the China Coast Guard (CCG) released two statements about a Philippine resupply vessel collided with one of its vessels during a resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal. However, the Philippine government did not issue statements until six hours after the incident occurred. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was the first to provide a statement, with the Philippine National Security Council (PNSC) and Department of National Defense (DND) issuing their own statement a few hours later.

Screenshot of alleged video showing damage from water cannon blasts during intercept of Philippine resupply vessel by a China Coast Guard ship (Photo: X/@junyin2001)

China’s Statements 

CCG issued its first statement about the incident at 6:54 a.m. local time, saying that a “Philippine resupply vessel illegally entered the area adjacent to Ren’ai Reef [Second Thomas Shoal] in China’s Nansha Islands [Spratly Islands].” The statement then said that the CCG took “control measures” against the vessel in accordance with the law. The incident occurred at 5:59 a.m. local time, when the resupply vessel disregarded China’s “repeated solemn warnings and violated the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.” China alleged that the Philippine vessel intentionally approached dangerously close to the CCG vessel in an unprofessional manner. The statement said that the Philippine vessel’s unprofessional sailing resulted in a “scuffling,” which is the “responsibility of the Philippine side alone.”

First Statement the China Coast Guard released regarding collision with Philippine resupply vessel at Second Thomas Shoal on June 17th

The CCG then issued a second statement about the incident on both its WeChat and Weibo accounts about the “Philippine intrusion into the Ren’ai Reef [Second Thomas Shoal].” CCG spokesperson Gan Yu said that the Philippines “reneged on its promise and sent one replenishment ship and two inflatable boats to illegally intrude into the waters adjacent to Ren’ai Reef [Second Thomas Reef] of the Spratlys of China in an attempt to deliver supplies to the illegally ‘beached’ warships.” The spokesperson said that the resupply vessels approached dangerously close and deliberately collided with a Chinese vessel that was sailing normally. The CCG took “warnings, boarding, inspection, forced removal, and other control measures against the Philippine vessel in accordance with the law.” Yu characterized the control measures that the Chinese vessel used as “a reasonable, lawful, professional, and standardized way of dealing with the vessel.” The spokesperson said that China told the Philippine side “that any form of infringement and provocation is futile,” and the CCG is on full alert and on standby to resolutely safeguard the country’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also issued a statement about the incident during the June 17th daily press conference. However, the statement was in response to a Reuters reporter asking a question about the incident. The reporter specifically pointed out the new regulations that allow the organization to detain foreigners and to use lethal force against foreign vessels that trespass into Chinese territorial waters, and asked if China would use lethal force “to solve situations like that one that occurred this morning.”

Second statement the China Coast Guard released about Second Thomas Shoal incident

The MFA spokesperson, Lin Jian, said that the implementation of the CCG’s regulations aims to implement the Maritime Police Law, “standardize the administrative law enforcement procedures of the CCG, better maintain the maritime order, and comply with international common practices.” Lin said that on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, China “insists on properly handling maritime-related contradictions and differences through consultations and negotiations with the countries directly involved,” while simultaneously resolutely responding to any provocative acts of maritime infringement. He then told the reporter that a Philippine resupply ship and two inflatable boats entered the waters adjacent to Second Thomas Shoal without the Chinese government’s permission. Lin said that the vessels attempted to deliver supplies, including construction materials, to the illegally beached warship. The spokesperson said the CCG took “the necessary control measures against the Philippine ships in accordance with the law, and the on-site operations are subject to professional restraint and reasonable law.”

Philippines Statement

The Philippines released three statements about the incident, with the AFP issuing a short statement from the military’s Public Affairs Chief, Colonel Xerxes Trinidad. Trinidad said that the AFP “will not discuss operational details on the legal humanitarian rotation and resupply mission at Ayugin Shoal [Second Thomas Shoal], which is well within our EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone].” The spokesperson said that the Philippines “will not dignify the deceptive and misleading claims of the China Coast Guard.” However, Trinidad said the main issue continues to be the illegal presence and actions of Chinese vessels within the Philippines’ EEZ that infringe on the country’s sovereignty and sovereign rights. However, the spokesperson said that the CCG’s continued aggressive actions are escalating tensions in the region.

Statement by the Armed Forces of the Philippines Public Affairs Chief, Colonel Xerxes Trinidad regarding June 17th incident during resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal (Photo: X/@FMangosingINQ)

The PNSC’s statement said that the AFP and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) conducted a routine rotation and resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal. The statement then pointed out that the mission “was disrupted by the illegal and aggressive actions of Chinese maritime forces.” The PNSC said that the CCG, Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM), and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels engaged in “dangerous maneuvers, including ramming and towing.” However, the statement pointed out that the Philippine personnel showed restraint and professionalism, refrained from escalating the tension, and carried on with the mission despite the aggressive, illegal, and reckless actions by China. The PNSC said that China’s actions put the lives of their personnel at risk and damaged their boats in “blatant violation of international law, particularly the United Nations Charter, the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the 2016 Arbitral Award.” The statement also condemned the CCG, CMM, and PLAN’s aggressive and illegal actions during the mission. The Philippines is committed to pursuing “peaceful and responsible actions in accordance with international law.” The Philippines said it expects China to do the same as a responsible member of the international community. The statement said the AFP and PCG remain steadfast in “upholding Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea [SCS].”

Statement by the Philippine National Security Council about the incident at the Second Thomas Shoal (Photo: X/@biancadava)

The Philippines DND also released a brief statement that said that China’s “dangerous and reckless behavior in the West Philippine Sea [SCS] shall be resisted by the AFP.” The statement pointed out that China’s behavior contradicts their statements of good faith and decency. The DND said the Philippines will “exert our utmost in order to fulfill our sworn mandate to protect our territorial integrity, sovereignty, and sovereign rights.” However, the statement said that the international community should be clear regarding how China’s actions are “the true obstacles to peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Statement by the Philippine Department National Defense about the June 17th incident (Photo: X/@dndphl)

Analysis

The delay in statements from the Philippines could support the Philippines’ narrative that China conducted aggressive actions against Philippine personnel during the mission. Furthermore, the Philippine government’s lack of response during the initial hours of the incident could indicate that the Philippine government is carefully determining the next course of action to take regarding how to effectively respond to China’s actions during the incident. The Philippines did not issue any statements from any government agencies until at least six hours after the incident occurred, with the AFP Public Affairs Chief releasing a short statement that followed both the PNSC and the DND. Furthermore, the PCG or the AFP did not release any images of photos taken during the resupply mission, which is unusual and does not fit into the Philippines’ transparency campaign. However, the Philippine government likely chose to delay releasing statements because of the CCG’s aggressive actions during the incident.

For example, one source reported that a Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG) member lost one of his fingers during the incident. The individual said that a CCG vessel approached one of the six Philippine vessels, grabbed one of the weapon systems, and “bumped it,” causing the weapon to strike the NAVSOG and cut his finger off. At least seven other Philippine personnel also received injuries during the incident, such as from a CCG blasting the main vessel with a water cannon. During the incident, CCG personnel targeted the other vessels, including the Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats (RHIBs). The source said that the Chinese personnel punctured the RHIB’s rubber hulls and rendered them immobile. Other CCG personnel also confiscated at least eight firearms from Philippine personnel during the incident. However, the CCG’s most significant action was ramming, boarding, and towing the main vessel away from the area to prevent the resupply mission from continuing.

The Philippine government likely used the resupply mission to test the CCG’s willingness to use its new regulations against Philippine trespassers and vessels. The PCG spokesperson for the SCS, Commodore Jay Tarriela, said that the organization did not have any details because it was not its operation, which is the strongest evidence to support this view. Tarriela’s comment indicates that the Philippine Navy (PN) was in charge of the resupply mission while the PCG provided support. The PN leading the mission indicates that the Philippines took precautions to guard against the potential for the CCG to detain or use lethal force against PCG personnel during the mission. Furthermore, the PN personnel would be better equipped to handle detainment by the CCG due to their past history of mistreatment of Philippine fishermen. However, using PN personnel also strongly suggests that the Philippine government understood the potential for an incident between the CCG and the PCG.

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