'Only pirates do this,' a general said after China's Coast Guard, armed with bladed weapons, clashed with Philippine boats in the South China Sea

  • A Philippine general called China's coast guard pirates after a violent confrontation.

  • China's Coast Guard disrupted a Philippine resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal.

  • Experts say it's not piracy, but it's a troubling escalation all the same.

The Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines accused China of behaving like pirates after members of China's coast guard aggressively clashed with Philippine vessels running a resupply mission on Monday, wielding bladed weapons.

"Only pirates do this," General Romeo Brawner Jr. said in a social media post regarding the recent actions of the Chinese coast guard. "Only pirates board, steal, and destroy ships, equipment, and belongings."

Beijing has blamed the Philippines for the incident, with a foreign ministry spokesperson saying Thursday that "the Philippine side has been calling white black and falsely accusing China."

Footage of the encounter showed China's Coast Guard fleet surrounding Philippine vessels in the South China Sea that were in the process of conducting a resupply and rotation mission. The Chinese vessels closed in and tensions flared. The incident marked an escalation amid months of confrontations in the area.

Members of the Coast Guard are seen in the videos wielding blades and removing objects from the Philippine vessel.

The Philippine general added that the crew members aboard the ambushed vessels were outnumbered and "fought with bare hands" against the Chinese coast guard personnel.

Though the Chinese coast guard behavior documented by the Philippines is aggressive, it's not piracy, an expert explained, but it's still a serious problem.

The Chinese coast guard might have used pirate-like tactics, but it's not legally piracy. The incident wasn't on the high seas beyond a country's jurisdiction, and as Harrison Prétat, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told Business Insider, it wasn't for monetary gain.

The Chinese Coast Guard is "trying to prevent the Philippines from resupplying the BRP Sierra Madre, a ship grounded on Second Thomas Shoal since 1999 where the Philippines maintains a garrison of marines," Prétat explained.

He added that the Permanent Court of Arbitration declared in 2016 that Second Thomas Shoal was a part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. Therefore, the Philippines should be able to access Second Thomas and even build artificial structures there in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory.

An aerial view of Scarborough Shoal.
This photo taken on February 15, 2024, shows an aerial view of Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea.JAM STA ROSA/AFP

Although the country is a signatory, "China rejects the 2016 ruling and is attempting to enforce its control over maritime activity within its nine-dash line claim," Prétat said. The nine-dash line is a map marking designating China's sweeping and controversial claims to the South China Sea.

This isn't the first time China's coast guard has acted aggressively toward the Philippines at sea, especially over parts of the hotly contested Spratley Islands. In recent months, Chinese ships have also fired water canons at Philippine vessels and even rammed them. Equipment has been damaged, and crew members have been injured. But this week's incident was notable, reaching a new level.

Per other reporting on the incident, Brawner said that the Chinese guardsmen "took guns and other equipment, destroyed our equipment onboard, including the motors. They punctured our rigid-hulled inflatable boats." One of the Filipino crewmembers even lost his thumb in the incident.

"This latest incident is a significant escalation from recent tensions, which previously involved water cannons targeting Philippine civilian boats—this time, the inflatable boat that was boarded and destroyed by Chinese personnel was a Philippine Navy vessel," Prétat said. That raises the stakes.

The maritime expert noted that the attack "could trigger US obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty." Prétat said it could raise the risk of a conflict between the US and China. Manila does not, however, plan to invoke the treaty. It's a means to prevent further escalation, but the Philippines is demanding China return seized equipment and pay for damages.

US ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson said this week in a post on X that the US "condemns the PRC's aggressive, dangerous maneuvers," referring to China by the acronym for People's Republic of China.

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