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Philippines and China Release Footage of June 17th 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 19th, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) released videos and photos of the resupply mission that occurred on June 17th. The AFP released the footage after China made statements saying the China Coast Guard (CCG) intercepted and boarded some of the vessels that “illegally intruded into waters near Ren’ai Jiao [Second Thomas Shoal].” Furthermore, China also released footage of the incident from their perspective and pushed their narrative that the Philippines was the aggressor.

The Philippine Footage

The mission began at 6 a.m. local time with the Philippine Navy (PN) deploying six vessels, including two Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB) and the M/L Lapu Lapu, to deliver supplies to the shoal. The CCG deployed eight vessels, including RHIBs, to intercept and harass the PN vessels as they sailed near the LST, BRP Sierra Madre. The Chinese vessels began to conduct aggressive actions against the Philippine vessels as they sailed within 131 feet (40 meters) of the LST. For example, the CCG vessels began to block and ram the PN boats to prevent them from reaching the Sierra Madre.

China Coast Guard personnel pointing axes and batons at Philippine Navy personnel during boarding (Photo: X/@TeamAFP)

Three CCG vessels blocked one of the RHIBs, and at least two to three CCG personnel armed with batons and other weapons boarded the boat to conduct a search and attach ropes to its bow. At least one CCG member recorded the boarding with a camcorder as it occurred. During the boarding, two Chinese coastguardsmen pointed axes and batons at the Philippine sailors to prevent them from interfering with the boarding. The CCG boat then towed the vessel away from the larger group, where the organization seized seven CAR-15 disassembled rifles and destroyed the boat’s navigational, radio, and steering systems. The Chinese personnel also destroyed camcorders and cell phones belonging to the sailors on board the vessel.

China Coast Guard towing away Philippine Navy RHIB during June 17th incident (Photo: X/@TeamAFP)

Three Chinese vessels blocked and rammed the PN RHIB, which resulted in one member of the Naval Special Operations Group losing his thumb. At least four CCG personnel boarded and searched the Philippine boat as two sailors treated the injured member. Other Chinese personnel in the surrounding vessels pointed weapons at and threatened the Philippine sailors on the RHIB. Furthermore, the personnel also deployed tear gas and sirens during the incident to disorientate and prevent the Philippine sailors from fighting back. The Chinese coastguardsmen also damaged the vessel’s communications and navigation systems.

Philippine Navy personnel assisting injured counterpart after China Coast Guard personnel deployed tear gas during boarding (grey mist at lower left corner of picture) (Photo: X/@TeamAFP)

Chinese vessels also swarmed the Philippine boats already moored along the side, offloading the supplies to the LST. CCG personnel then boarded the vessels to conduct searches, seize, and destroy equipment and systems. The personnel also tied ropes around one of the vessels’ structures to tow the boat. Other Chinese coastguardsmen threatened the PN sailors on the boats with swords, batons, and other weapons. They also used knives and other bladed weapons to puncture the two PN RHIBs alongside the Sierra Madre.

Philippine sailors on board the BRP Sierra Madre throwing water at China Coast Guard personnel attempting to block Philippine vessels from offloading supplies (X/@TeamAFP)

The CCG vessels also deployed sirens and flashing strobe lights to disorient and prevent the Philippine personnel from recording the incident. Personnel stationed on the LST threw buckets of water on the CCG personnel to prevent them from damaging the Philippine vessels. The CCG personnel then pointed weapons, shouted threats, and threw rocks at the sailors on board the LST. Some of the CCG vessels and the RHIBs rammed the PN vessels before one Chinese boat towed one of the Philippine boats away. Chinese personnel then boarded the vessel and seized equipment while also damaging its systems.

Photo of Philippine RHIB’s communications and navigations systems destroyed (L) and Philippine Navy cell phone destroyed by China Coast Guard personnel during June 17th incident (Photo: X/@TeamAFP)

China’s Reaction 

On June 19th, a Chinese state media outlet, the Global Times, released pictures and a video of the June 17th incident. The article depicted six images that showed the CCG conducting various Interception, Boarding, Inspection, and Expulsion (IBIE) of the Philippine Navy vessels when they neared Second Thomas Shoal. The first picture showed the ML Lapu Lapu, the resupply vessel that the PN used during the mission to the Second Thomas Shoal, before a CCG boat rammed the Lapu Lapu.

China Coast Guard photo of the ML Lapu Lapu, the Philippine resupply vessel used during the June 17th resupply mission

Another photo showed the same CCG vessel colliding with the Lapu Lapu, with a CCG member filming the encounter with a camcorder. Another picture showed four Chinese vessels, including one from a China Maritime Militia (CMM) ship, that surrounded, boarded, and inspected the boat. The article said that the CCG personnel held the Philippine sailors at the boat’s bow during the boarding.

Illustration putting out China Coast Guard vessels and Philippine Navy vessel

The fourth picture showed two CCG vessels “forcibly expelling” a PN boat by sandwiching between the Chinese boats. A small Chinese boat followed closely behind the vessel. Another picture shows two CCG vessels attempting to intercept and ram a PN vessel as it sailed towards the shoal. The last photo showed a CCG vessel moving to intercept a Philippine supply boat as it conducted its mission.

Two China Coast Guard Vessels intercepting a Philippine Navy boat as it sailed near Second Thomas Shoal

Analysis

The footage from the PN shows that China will use the new CCG regulations to stop the Philippines from completing any resupply missions to the shoal and prevent the country from transporting construction supplies to the LST. The Philippines’ restrained response in the days after the incident indicates the country is attempting to deescalate tensions with China while still maintaining its intentions to continue the resupply missions.

The CCG conducted aggressive actions because the organization believed that the regulations justified their reaction against the Philippine sailors. For example, CCG personnel are allowed to board, seize, and detain foreign individuals and vessels if they trespass into Chinese waters. The CCG likely believes that the regulations also allow them to employ similar tactics as those employed along the Line of Actual Control that serves as China’s and India’s border. However, China also believes the measures, along with the Philippines continuing its resupply missions, justify its use of axes, batons, bolo knives, and other weapons to threaten Philippine personnel.

While China at first categorized its response as the Philippines rescinding its promise and sending two resupply vessels to the shoal, the country then said that its aggressive response was due to the Philippines transporting construction materials to reinforce the Sierra Madre in recent months. For example, China released footage of a Philippine vessel allegedly transporting construction materials to the Sierra Madre on June 21st. China previously used this argument to justify its less aggressive actions against Philippine vessels and reused it to provide further justification for its recent actions against the Philippine sailors. In a recent interview, the Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Jose Romualdez, described the construction as a “humanitarian act of giving these people a decent place to be in because they’re stationed there.” However, any construction efforts that would extend the lifespan of the Sierra Madre would be temporary because of the vessel’s advanced age and deterioration. Furthermore, continued exposure to the ocean and weather will have a detrimental effect on any improvements the detachment could make to the LST.

The Philippines’ response in the days after the incident implies that the country is hesitant to escalate the incident with China. The Philippine National Maritime Council said that it did not consider the incident “an armed attack” but “probably a misunderstanding or an accident.” The council’s statement points to the Philippines trying to deescalate the current situation while allowing dialogue with China to be maintained. For example, Lucas Bersamin, the National Maritime Council’s Chairman, said that the reason for China’s aggressive actions is due to the country having “no prior knowledge” of the resupply mission. However, Bersamin also said that the Philippines will continue to conduct the resupply missions and publicize their schedule to prevent any future accidents or misunderstandings. The Philippines also reduced the number of Philippine sailors injured during the incident from seven to one casualty. The Philippine government decreased the casualties to further reduce tensions over China’s aggressive actions during the incident.

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