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Interference In Medical and Rescue Missions Points to China’s Increasing Pressure on Philippines

On July 7th, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) successfully completed a joint operation to evacuate a Philippine Navy (PN) sailor from Second Thomas Shoal. The PCG successfully evacuated the individual despite attempts by several China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels to prevent the PCG boats from reaching the BRP Sierra Madre.

July 7th Medical Evacuation

Both the AFP and the PCG conducted an “emergency medical evacuation” of a PN sailor stationed on the Sierra Madre suffering from severe dehydration. In response to the AFP’s request, the PCG deployed two boats, the BRP Cabra and the BRP Cape Engano, to meet a PN Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) that carried the sick sailor near the shoal. At least seven Chinese boats, one CCG, and six China Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels attempted to block the Cabra and the Cape Engano as they moved towards the rendezvous location.

China Coast Guard and China Maritime Militia vessels surround Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard RHIBs during July 7th medical evacuation mission (Photo: X/@jaytaryela)

However, the PCG PHIB was sent to meet the Sierra Madre’s RHIB, successfully maneuvered around the Chinese boats to meet the RHIB, and completed the transfer of the affected individual. The PCG inflatable boat successfully returned to the main PCG vessel without additional interruptions, despite the CCG and CMM’s “threatening presence.” The Philippine vessel transported the individual to Western Command Headquarters, located at Camp Gen. Artemio Ricarte in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. AFP medical staff treated the sailor for dehydration; he is reportedly to be in stable condition.

China Coast Guard and China Maritime Militia vessels moving to intercept the Philippine Coast Guard RHIB during medical evacuation mission (Photo: X/@jaytaryela)

PN Spokesperson for the South China Sea (SCS), Rear Admiral Roy Trinidad, confirmed that the Cabra and the Cap Engano were the two vessels that were blocked by the seven Chinese boats during a press conference on July 8th. Trinidad also thanked the PCG for assisting the navy during the medical evacuation. He also said that the effort is “to ensure the safety and security of our [PN] people deployed on the BRP Sierra Madre.”

Philippine Coast Guard photo showing personnel on bridge looking at China Coast Guard vessel as it blocked the Philippine vessel’s path (Photo: X/@jaytaryela)

June 29th Incident Near Scarborough Shoal

On June 29th, the CCG also interfered with another PCG vessel, the BRP Sindangan, as it rescued Philippine fishermen who fell overboard after their boat’s engine exploded near Scarborough Shoal. The explosion occurred around 8 a.m. local time as the fishermen restarted the engine after completing repairs. The fishermen jumped overboard as the boat began to sink, and after they sent a distress signal to vessels in the area, a nearby fishing boat responded to the call, rescued the eight fishermen, and brought them to the BRP Sindangan.

Two China Coast Guard vessels monitor the transfer of Philippine fishermen to PCG ship (Photo: X/@jaytaryela)

A CCG vessel in the area at the time of the explosion sailed towards the boat and threw life vests at the Philippine fishermen, which struck one of the individuals. However, the fishermen said the life vests were “useless” because the fishing boat was transferring the individuals to the PCG boat. The Chinese boat also deployed two RHIBs that obstructed and hindered efforts to transfer the Philippine fishermen to the PCG vessel. The Sindangan and Philippine fishing boats, however, outmaneuvered the Chinese RHIBs and picked up the injured individuals. The PCG medical personnel onboard the Sindangan treated two fishermen who suffered second-degree burns. The CCG boat shadowed the Sindangan as it sailed towards the Philippines.

Philippine Coast Guard medical personnel treating injured Philippine fisherman after they were transferred to the BRP Sindangan on June 29th (X/@jaytaryela)

The Sindangan arrived at Riviera Pier, located at Subic Bay Freeport, at 4:20 a.m. local time on June 30th. The PCG vessel began to tow the Akio I, but another fishing boat took over and towed it to Barangay Calapandayan, located in Subic City. The PCG personnel transferred the two injured fishermen to a hospital in Olongapo City for additional treatment. China released footage of the incident and a short post on social media that said the CCG vessel rescued the Philippine fishermen. However, the CCG heavily edited the footage, with most of it showing CCG and CMM vessels near the fishing boat while not actively assisting the fishermen. Furthermore, the Philippine fishermen disputed the CCG’s account, saying that it was the PCG and their fellow fishermen who rescued the individuals. Another fisherman said the CCG’s inaction “was expected as they have had previous run-ins with its personnel who shooed them away every time they would go near Panatag Shoal [Scarborough Shoal].”

Photo of Philippine Coast Guard vessel , the BRP Sindangan towing the Akio I back to the Philippines on June 29th (Photo: X/@jaytaryela)

Interference Illustrates Increasing Chinese Pressure

The incidents at Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoals indicate that China is increasingly applying pressure to the Philippines to force it to relinquish control of the features. The incidents, however, show how effective the Philippines’ transparency campaign is at dispelling China’s narrative surrounding the incidents that occur in the SCS. The July 7th incident at Second Thomas Shoal was to show China’s displeasure at the Philippines’ noncompliance with the gentleman’s agreement regarding resupply missions. However, the incident is part of China’s long-term strategy to force the Philippines to accept China’s SCS claims, including a significant portion of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China’s rationale for employing this strategy is to push the Philippines into an unfavorable position regarding how it could sustain the PN detachment on the Sierra Madre. For example, the detachment at Second Thomas Shoal is relatively isolated, even within the network of Philippine-claimed features. The isolation forces the Philippines to conduct increasingly dangerous missions to deliver supplies to the deployed personnel. China imposed a significant amount of risk on the Philippines to conduct resupply missions in a relatively short time. The risk forces the Philippines to constantly calculate the acceptable amount of risk the country is willing to assume to conduct these missions.

The June 28th incident fits into China’s long-term strategy because it also aims to increase the amount of risk that the PCG and Philippine fishermen face when operating at Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines must consider the fishermen’s presence because it compounds the risk the country faces when operating in the area. One risk is the potential for the CCG and CMM vessels to increasingly mistreat Philippine fishermen who operate near the shoal. For example, the CCG and CMM vessels would prevent Philippine fishermen from sheltering at the shoal during storms. China would likely increase pressure by detaining the fishermen and boats, physically blocking their access to the shoal, or physically attacking the fishermen. The Philippines would face a dilemma since they would be required to deploy more PCG boats to monitor the shoal. Furthermore, the Philippines would need to consider what limits the country will face when its PCG and fishermen operate in the area. China, in turn, would use the increased risk posed by its aggressive actions to force the Philippines to stop contesting its SCS claims.

The incidents, however, show how the Philippines uses its transparency campaign to dispel China’s attempts at controlling the narrative. The PCG posted photos and videos on its social media accounts that showed the incident in its entirety. The media also included date and time stamps. The videos and photos are unedited and released in near real-time, which provides viewers with a better understanding of how the incidents occur. These photos and videos contrast heavily with the photos and videos that China posted to its social media accounts. For example, the Chinese state-run outlet, the Global Times, posted a video to its X account that shows the CCG’s rescue operation. However, Global Times heavily edited the video to not show the surrounding PCG and Philippine boats. The video only showed CCG personnel throwing lifejackets at the Philippine fishermen for them to use.

The video, however, contains several issues related to how it depicts the CCG personnel helping the fishermen. The video only shows brief glimpses of the Philippine fishermen as the CCG personnel threw life buoys and lifejackets that they could use to stay afloat. The cameraman’s position relative to where the Philippine fisherman and Chinese coastguardsman were indicates that the person in the water was actually a CCG member and not a fisherman. The video showed Chinese personnel throwing a lifejacket at a Philippine fisherman who was sitting on a boat that did not need one. The most significant aspect of the video, however, was the CCG personnel throwing lifejackets onboard the fishing boat when no fishermen were onboard. The CCG made the video to show that its personnel helped when they only gave life jackets after the fishermen were transferred to the Sindangan. However, the PCG’s videos disproved China’s narrative while providing proof that the PCG rescued the Philippine fishermen.

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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