China Coast Guard Uses Laser to Drive Off Philippine Supply Convoy

Philippine Coast Guard image of a laser strike from a Chinese vessel
Image courtesy PCG

Published Feb 13, 2023 2:30 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Philippine Coast Guard has accused the China Coast Guard of interfering once again with a mission to resupply the Philippine Navy outpost on Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), this time with more aggressive techniques.

The station on Second Thomas Shoal is a beached WWII-era Landing Ship Tank (LST), the BRP Sierra Madre, which the Philippines intentionally grounded in 1999 to form a makeshift shelter. The deteriorating wreck provides a base for a small squad of Philippine troops, who remain on the island in order to prevent Chinese forces from seizing it.

Chinese vessels have often blocked Philippine convoys to the base in the past, including a five-month period in 2013-14 in which no support vessels could get through. In 2021, the China Coast Guard attempted to drive off a Philippine supply convoy using water cannons. 

The blockade can approach the intensity of an armed standoff at times. In August 2022, the crew of the Chinese cutter CCG 5205 uncovered its deck cannon as a Philippine supply vessel approached within 2.5 nm of Second Thomas Shoal. Supported by another CCG cutter and two Chinese maritime militia fishing vessels, CCG 5205 set up a cordon around the shoal, blocking the resupply mission. 

Last Monday, the Philippine Coast Guard vessel BRP Malapascua was under way near Second Thomas Shoal in support of the latest rotation and resupply mission for the garrison on the Sierra Madre. As the Malapascua was about 10 nm away from the reef, the crew spotted the same China Coast Guard vessel - CCG 5205 - cutting across her bow at a distance of about four nm. 

The CCG cutter illuminated Malapascua's bridge with a "military grade" green laser light, temporarily blinding the bridge team. The CCG vessel then approached Malapascua, coming to within 150 yards of her starboard quarter. 

Malapascua broke off and departed the scene, heading for Lawak Island instead. She joined the BRP Teresa Magbanua to support the PCG's own resupply mission for its outlying stations in the Kalayaan Islands. 

"The deliberate blocking of the Philippine government ships to deliver food and supplies to our military personnel on board the BRP Sierra Madre is a blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights," said the PCG in a statement. 

China claims most of the South China Sea as its own, including large swathes of the Philippine EEZ, and it asserts that Second Thomas Shoal is within its inherent territory. In a press conference Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin claimed that the Philippine Coast Guard was trespassing in Chinese waters, despite the 700 nm distance from mainland China.

"The [Second Thomas Shoal] is part of China’s [Spratly Islands]. On February 6, a Philippine Coast Guard vessel intruded into the waters off the [Second Thomas Shoal] without Chinese permission. In accordance with China’s domestic law and international law . . . the China Coast Guard ship upheld China’s sovereignty and maritime order and acted in a professional and restrained way," asserted Wenbin. 

Chinese maritime forces have been accused of improperly using laser dazzlers before. In February 2022, the PLA Navy warships Hefei and Jinggang Shan were accused of targeting an Australian P-8A maritime patrol aircraft with a laser rangefinder, creating a hazard for the pilots. In February 2020, a PLA Navy destroyer targeted an American P-8A using a high-powered laser, according to U.S. Pacific Fleet.