Days After Maritime Talks, China Drives Off Philippine Fishing Vessel

CCG 5204
CCG 5204 during an earlier run-in with the Indonesian Navy (Bakamla file image)

Published Jan 22, 2023 7:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

Just days after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. secured promises of better maritime relations from Chinese President Xi Jinping, a China Coast Guard vessel allegedly chased a Philippine fishing boat away from a shoal within the Philippine EEZ. The incident is the latest in a long string of run-ins between Chinese vessels and Philippine fishermen in the western reaches of the Philippines' waters. 

On January 9, the Philippine fishing boat Ken-Ken was operating near Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), a contested land feature in the center of the Spratly Islands. The captain, Lito Al-os, claims that the China Coast Guard vessel CCG 5204 drove his vessel off. 

According to Al-os, the CCG 5204 approached to within 800 meters of his fishing vessel and deployed its small boat. The boat crew approached and gestured to the fishing boat to leave the area, and Al-os complied and got under way. 

A video provided by Al-os shows the boatcrew following the fishing vessel at a relatively close range of 100-200 meters. Disturbingly, according to Al-os, CCG 5204 and its small boat continued to follow the Ken-Ken as it transited to Boxall Reef, some 15 nautical miles to the southeast. 

On returning to port on January 20, Al-os reported the encounter to the Philippine Coast Guard. The agency's Pag-asa branch deployed more patrol vessels in response and is investigating; it plans to pass its findings to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which regularly files complaints with the Chinese Embassy over maritime rights infringements. 

"CG Admiral Artemio M. Abu assured concerned Filipino fishermen that the PCG remains steadfast in its commitment to uphold rules-based approaches in protecting their welfare and securing the country's exclusive economic zones at all costs," said the Philippine Coast Guard in a statement. 

The run-in occurred just five days after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. reported significant progress in talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping over maritime security and fishing access in the Spratly Islands. In a statement following meetings in Beijing on January 4, Marcos said that Xi had agreed to "find a solution" to allow Philippine fishermen to access their traditional fishing grounds - a persistent point of tension within the Philippine EEZ. 

Second Thomas Shoal is claimed by both China and the Philippines, and it is a regular maritime sovereignty flashpoint in the region. To enforce Manila's title, the Philippine military maintains a small garrison at Second Thomas aboard a grounded and deteriorated landing ship, the BRP Sierra Madre. Over the years, Philippine forces have resisted multiple Chinese attempts to cut off and harass resupply missions for the men stationed aboard the wreck. 

CCG 5204 will be familiar in the Philippines as it called in Manila in 2020, bearing a note on a banner on its upper rail: "Strengthening dialogue and cooperation on maritime issues, making the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperaton for the benefit of two peoples."

The same vessel escorted a Chinese fishing fleet into the Indonesian EEZ in 2020, prompting a protest from the Indonesian Foreign Ministry.