Philippines demands return of rifles after clash in disputed South China Sea

A number of Filipino navy personnel were injured in the confrontation.

The South China Sea is considered a flashpoint waterway (Philippine Coast Guard via AP)
The South China Sea is considered a flashpoint waterway (Philippine Coast Guard via AP) (AP)

The Philippine military chief has demanded the return of rifles and equipment seized by the Chinese coast guard in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea and pay for damage in an assault he likened to an act of piracy.

Chinese personnel on board more than eight motorboats repeatedly rammed then boarded the two Philippine navy inflatable boats on Monday to prevent Filipino navy personnel from transferring food and other supplies including firearms to a Philippine territorial outpost in Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by Beijing, according to Philippine officials.

After a scuffle and repeated collisions, the Chinese seized the boats and damaged them with machetes, knives and hammers.

They also seized eight M4 rifles, which were packed in cases, navigation equipment and other supplies and wounded a number of Filipino navy personnel, including one who lost his right thumb, two Philippine security officials told The Associated Press.

At a news conference where he pinned a medal on the chest of an injured navy officer, Gen Romeo Brawner Jr, head of the Philippine armed forces, said: “We are demanding that the Chinese return our rifles and our equipment and we’re also demanding that they pay for the damage they caused.

“They boarded our boats illegally and seized our equipment.

“They’re now like pirates with this kind of actions.”

Armed with long knives and machetes, the Chinese coast guard personnel tried to beat the unarmed Filipinos, who resisted with their bare hands by parrying the blows and pushing back the Chinese, Gen Brawner said, adding: “Our objective is also to prevent war.”

China blamed the Philippines for the confrontation, saying the Filipino personnel “trespassed” into the shoal in defiance of its warnings.

The United States renewed a warning that it is obligated to defend its close treaty ally (AP)
The United States renewed a warning that it is obligated to defend its close treaty ally (AP) (Aaron Favila/AP)

“This is the direct cause of the incident,” foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said in Beijing.

“The Chinese coast guard at the scene has taken professional law-enforcement measures with restraint aimed at stopping the illegal supply mission by the Philippine vessels and no direct measures were taken against the Philippine personnel.”

The United States renewed a warning on Tuesday that it is obligated to defend the Philippines, a treaty ally.

Second Thomas Shoal, part of the disputed Spratly Islands, has been occupied by a small Philippine navy contingent aboard a grounded warship that has been closely monitored by China’s coast guard and navy in a years-long territorial standoff. China claims the South China Sea virtually in its entirety.

There is fear that disputes in the South China Sea, long regarded as an Asian flashpoint, could escalate and pit the United States against China in a larger conflict.

Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have also been involved in the increasingly tense stand-offs in the busy waterway.

Since last year, hostilities between China and the Philippines have escalated in the disputed waters, particularly in Second Thomas Shoal, which is less than 200 nautical miles from the Philippine coast and where the BRP Sierra Madre, now encrusted with rust, was deliberately grounded in 1999 to create a territorial outpost.

The ship remains an actively commissioned military vessel, meaning an attack on it could be considered by the Philippines as an act of war.