Philippine Coast Guard Bypasses Chinese Blockade in Spratly Islands

Two China Coast Guard cutters head off the Philippine Coast Guard's BRP Cabra (PCG)

Published Aug 22, 2023 10:13 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Tuesday, the Philippine Coast Guard successfully shepherded two supply boats past opposing Chinese vessels in order to deliver much-needed goods to the garrison at Second Thomas Shoal. The mission was an important success for the PCG and for the Philippine Armed Forces, as the previous attempt had been thwarted by larger China Coast Guard cutters using watercannon and aggressive maneuvering.

The Philippine military maintains a small outpost of soldiers at Second Thomas Shoal aboard a WWII-era LST, the BRP Sierra Madre. The vessel was intentionally driven aground in 1999 to create a semipermanent base on the reef. Resupply runs to the outpost are a regular source of friction with China, which claims most of the South China Sea as its own, including a vast swath of the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

This time, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) warned the China Coast Guard to "behave" before the operation began, and Philippine Navy vessels were on standby to assist if the confrontation grew too heated. More subtly, Philippine officials hinted that three of Manila's most powerful allies - America, Japan and Australia - happened to have scheduled a large-scale naval exercise off the Philippines this week, with three helicopter carriers and their escorts operating in the area. (These claims were later retracted.)   

On Tuesday, the Philippine cutters BRP Cabra and BRP Sindangan escorted two chartered shallow-draft supply boats in a convoy to Second Thomas Shoal. Like many times before, they were intercepted by China Coast Guard cutters and Chinese paramilitary-operated trawlers (maritime militia vessels).

Despite Chinese attempts to "block, harass and interfere" with the mission, the supply boats made it through and delivered their cargoes to the BRP Sierra Madre, according to PCG spokesman Cmdr. Jay Tarriela. Footage released by Tarriela showed two China Coast Guard cutters, CCG 2155 and 3302, blocking the course of the BRP Cabra. A third CCG cutter loitered in the background, along with two fishing vessels. 

"Collaborative efforts and unity of purpose with the AFP strongly demonstrate our government's determination to assert our sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea," said Admiral Artemio Abu, the Philippine Coast Guard's commandant.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague has ruled that China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea are invalid under international law. China has dismissed the ruling and ignored it, instead proceeding with plans to develop a permanent presence hundreds of miles from its shores.