On April 23, 2023, a Chinese coast guard ship blocked a Philippine patrol vessel steaming into a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, causing a frightening near-collision in the latest act of Beijing’s aggression in the strategic waterway. The high seas face-off between the larger Chinese ship and the Philippine coast guard’s BRP Malapascua near Second Thomas Shoal was among the tense moments it and another Philippine vessel encountered in a weeklong sovereignty patrol in one of the world’s most hotly contested waterways.
The Philippine coast guard had invited a small group of journalists, including three from The Associated Press, to join the 1,670-kilometer (1,038-mile) patrol for the first time as part of a new Philippine strategy aimed at exposing China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade transits each year.
In areas occupied or controlled by China, the Philippine patrol vessels received radio warnings in Chinese and halting English, ordering them to immediately leave what the Chinese coast guard and navy radio callers claimed were Beijing’s “undisputable territories” and issuing unspecified threats for defiance.
Hostilities peaked that Sunday morning in the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly archipelago, the most fiercely contested region in the busy sea channel. As the two patrol vessels approached the shoal’s shallow turquoise waters for an underwater survey, the Chinese coast guard repeatedly warned them by radio to leave the area, which is about 194 kilometers (121 miles) west of the Philippine island province of Palawan.
After several radio exchanges, a Chinese coast guard caller, sounding agitated, warned of unspecified adversarial action. “Since you have disregarded our warning, we will take further necessary measures on you in accordance with the laws and any consequences entailed will be borne by you,” the Chinese speaker said.
A Chinese coast guard ship rapidly approached and shadowed the smaller Malapascua and the Malabrigo. When the Malapascua maneuvered toward the mouth of the shoal, the Chinese ship suddenly shifted to block it, coming as close as 36 to 46 meters (120 to 150 feet) from its bow, said Malapascua’s skipper, Capt. Rodel Hernandez. To avoid a collision, Hernandez abruptly reversed his vessel’s direction then shut off its engine to bring the boat to a full stop.
Filipino personnel aboard the vessels — and journalists, who captured the tense moment on camera — watched in frightened silence. But the Malapascua steered just in time to avoid a potential disaster. Hernandez later told journalists that the “sudden and really very dangerous maneuver” by the Chinese coast guard ship had disregarded international rules on collision avoidance. He had the Philippine vessels leave the area after the encounter for the safety of the ships and personnel.
Earlier, a huge Chinese navy ship shadowed the two Philippine patrol vessels in the dark of night as they cruised near Subi, one of seven barren reefs China has transformed in the last decade into a missile-protected island base. The Chinese navy ship radioed the Philippine vessels “to immediately leave and keep out.” The coast guard radioed back to assert Philippine sovereign rights to the area before steaming away.
China has long demanded that the Philippines withdraw its small contingent of naval forces and tow away the actively commissioned but crumbling BRP Sierra Madre. The navy ship was deliberately marooned on the shoal in 1999 and now serves as a fragile symbol of Manila’s territorial claim to the atoll. Chinese ships often block navy vessels delivering food and other supplies to the Filipino sailors on the ship, including just a few days earlier, Hernandez said.