Water Cannons and "Boxing": Chinese Flotilla Tries to Block Convoy

Courtresy PCG

Published Nov 12, 2023 7:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Philippine Coast Guard is used to encountering resistance from Chinese maritime forces at Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippine military maintains a small outpost, but the latest resupply run was more challenging than ever. 38 China Coast Guard, PLA Navy and Chinese maritime militia vessels - a new record - were anchored around the reef or under way nearby, and more than half a dozen shadowed the convoy in an attempt to harass it. One of the Chinese cutters also used its water cannon to intimidate the Philippine vessels. 

At about 0630 hours on Friday, the PCG cutters BRP Cabra, Sindangan, and Melchora Aquino arrived in waters just off the shoal with two small supply boats in tow. The outpost is in a shallow lagoon, and larger ships can't access it, so the Philippine military charters small indigenous boats for the run. They encountered a substantial Chinese force, but with carefully planned maneuvering, they evaded it and completed the supply mission without risk of collision. 

The PCG records its interactions with China's maritime "gray-zone" vessels at the shoal, and it usually brings embedded reporters to document the encounters. Videos the PCG released on Saturday appear to show a China Coast Guard cutter (CCG 5203, familiar from previous confrontations) using a high-capacity water cannon to intimidate a nearby Philippine supply boat. The cutter appeared to keep a distance of several hundred meters from the smaller vessel. 

Another video shows four Chinese vessels - one cutter and three extra-large trawlers of the Chinese maritime militia - circling a single Philippine Coast Guard cutter, BRP Cabra. A third recording shows a slow-motion race to the reef, with five large Chinese vessels "boxing in" a small Philippine supply boat. 

Despite the pressure from Chinese ships, the PCG cutters got closer to the channel entrance into the shoal's lagoon than they ever have before, the service told Rappler. The PCG deployed RIB boats to escort the supply vessels for the final mile to their destination, the grounded WWII landing ship BRP Sierra Madre, which has served as a makeshift base and a marker of sovereignty for the last 24 years. 

"The dangerous maneuverings of the CCG vessels are illegal and irresponsible actions that put into question and significant doubt their narrative of law enforcement and their real identity as a coast guard organization,” said Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) commandant Admiral Ronnie Gavan in a statement. “Ironically, they are supposed to ensure safety of life at sea, but they are the one that deliberately violate [COLREGS]."

Chinese forces only contest the Philippines' access to Second Thomas Shoal, PCG personnel told reporters during the mission. The Philippines has other bases in the Spratly Islands, but these are never subjected to quasi-military blockade, at least not to the same degree. 

China's military has protested the Philippine presence at the land feature since at least 1999, when the BRP Sierra Madre was run aground to defend against China's sweeping maritime claims. Over the past decade, Chinese dredging and construction companies have built a string of military bases on nearby atolls, covering over similar low-tide elevations with sand in order to build strategic runways, radar installations and city-sized complexes to house large garrisons.