Philippine military chief says Chinese ship ‘rammed’ his boat in disputed waters

Jeoffrey Maitem and Jojo Riñoza
El Nido, Philippines
Philippine military chief says Chinese ship ‘rammed’ his boat in disputed waters Journalists watch a video presentation during a news conference in Manila of Philippine Coast Guard personnel assisting a supply boat after it was allegedly damaged by a China Coast Guard water cannon in the South China Sea, Dec. 11, 2023.
Aaron Favila/AP

The chief of the Philippine armed forces was aboard a small wooden-hulled boat when, he said, a Chinese ship hit it during a series of weekend incidents that Manila was calling a “serious escalation” of tensions in disputed waters.

Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said he was on the Unaizah Mae 1, one of three Philippine boats allegedly blasted by Chinese water cannon and piercing sounds during a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, a Philippine military outpost at Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal in the South China Sea.

“It was rammed. The Chinese coast guard were shadowing us from the start, and they got as close as 500 meters, 200 meters, then 100 meters,” Brawner told DZBB, a Tagalog-language radio station, on Monday.

“When dawn broke, we clearly saw that the Chinese militia [ship] tried to cut our path. Their maneuver was very dangerous.”

Also on Monday, Philippine officials presented images and videos of the incident.

“This is a serious escalation on the part of the agents of the People’s Republic of China,” Jonathan Malaya, spokesman for the National Security Council spokesman, said during a news conference.

In Beijing, meanwhile, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters that a Philippine boat had traveled “headlong” into a Chinese ship.

Brawner said he slept aboard the Unaizah Mae 1 and oversaw “legitimate radio challenges” to Chinese boats in the area, adding that two China Coast Guard ships and three Chinese maritime militia ships were following the small Philippine boat. About 40 Chinese ships in all were stationed in the waters in and around Ayungin Shoal, he said.

“They started shadowing us on Saturday and it continued at 4 a.m. the following day, and until we – the Unaizah Mae – reached BRP Sierra Madre at 8 a.m.,” he said.

Brawner said he was “very angry” about the harassment of the resupply mission.

“The Chinese were not told that I was aboard Unaizah Mae 1, so maybe that’s why it happened and they did not change tactics,” Brawner said during the radio interview.

“While their aggressive actions have increased, our directive to our troops is to practice maximum tolerance. That’s why we were just trying to evade them.”

11 SCS-2.jpg
In this photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, a China Coast Guard ship (right) uses its water cannon on a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources boat (not shown) as it approaches Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, Dec. 9, 2023. [Handout/Philippine Coast Guard via AP]

The latest incident forced government officials to order a civilian “Christmas convoy” that had been set up to deliver holiday supplies to troops and fishermen in disputed waters to return to shore, according to ATIN ITO, the group organizing the effort.

The BRP Sierra Madre is a rusted World War II-era navy ship that Manila grounded deliberately to mark its territorial claim at Ayungin Shoal, a reef in the contested Spratly Islands that lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Manila also accused the Chinese coast guard of firing water cannon and painful sound blasts against boats that were ferrying supplies to Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal, another disputed area, over the weekend.

Dueling protests

On Monday, Manila’s foreign affairs department said it had filed a formal protest to Beijing and summoned China’s envoy, while the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, announced that Beijing had lodged its own protest over the incident.

“[A] Philippine vessel went headlong towards Ren’ai Jiao’s lagoon and dangerously rammed a CCG ship on the scene,” Mao Ning said, using an acronym for the China Coast Guard. “This gravely violated China’s sovereignty and jeopardized the safety of the Chinese ships and personnel.”

Ren’ai Jiao is the Chinese name for Second Thomas Shoal.

“The root cause is that the Philippines has broken its promise and refused to tow away the illegally grounded warship at the reef and attempted to reinforce it on a large scale in an attempt to permanently occupy Ren’ai Jiao,” she said.

In response to the tensions in the waterway over the weekend, the United States, the European Union and Japan all issued statements condemning what they described as “dangerous actions” by the Chinese ships.

When a reporter asked her about a U.S. statement calling on China to stop “dangerous and destabilizing” actions in the South China Sea, Mao Ning said her nation would take the necessary steps to ensure territorial sovereignty.

“[T]he U.S. has been fanning disputes, misrepresenting facts, stoking confrontation and undermining regional peace and stability,” she said during the foreign ministry’s daily news briefing in Beijing.


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