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‘Like They Are Pirates’: Philippines Slams Latest Chinese Confrontation in South China Sea

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Updated: | Originally published:

The Philippine military denounced China’s latest actions in the hotly disputed South China Sea, saying that a confrontation earlier this week resulted in a Filipino navy serviceman losing a finger.

Late Wednesday local time, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) shared a series of videos and posts on social media about the Monday incident, which it called a “brazen act of aggression.” Jay Tarriela, spokesperson for the Philippine Coast Guard, said the footage serves “as a clear indication that humanity has once again allowed barbarism to trample upon compassion.”

The AFP posts, backed by recordings, asserted that Chinese forces brandished bladed weapons, deployed tear gas, hurled rocks, and blared sirens and strobe lights to cause disorder, among other measures, at Filipino troops aboard rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs). A Chinese aircraft circled overhead, the AFP added, “in a further display of excessive force and intimidation,” as the China Coast Guard (CCG) allegedly forcibly commandeered a Philippine boat.

In a press conference earlier Wednesday, AFP commander Alfonso Torres Jr. said CCG personnel “illegally boarded” the Philippine rubber boats that were conducting a routine resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded vessel at the Second Thomas Shoal that has functioned as an outpost to maintain the Philippines’ claim to the shoal.

Torres also said the Chinese “looted” seven of the Philippine navy’s rifles, which were disassembled inside gun cases and were supposed to be for Filipino servicemen stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre.

Eight Philippine navy personnel reportedly sustained injuries, though the military has only confirmed one victim: a sailor whose right thumb got severed after the CCG rammed the Philippine boats.

“Because of the speed, the forward portion of the China Coast Guard’s RHIB landed on top of our troop’s RHIB, and unfortunately our troop’s hand was there,” Torres said. “It’s a relief that it wasn’t the whole hand.”

AFP chief General Romeo Brawner Jr. said the standoff, the latest in a series of escalations in the disputed waterway, marked the first time Filipino troops encountered CCG members armed with bladed weapons like bolos, knives, and spears, which they allegedly used to pierce through Philippine Navy boats. “We saw in the video how the Chinese even threatened our personnel by pointing their knives,” Brawner said.

Brawner said the AFP demands that Beijing return the disassembled rifles. “We are also demanding from them to pay for the damages that they have caused,” he added. “For me, this is piracy already… Because they boarded our boats illegally. They got our equipment. Again, based on their actions, it’s like they are pirates.”

The Philippines’ foreign affairs department said it “denounces the illegal and aggressive actions of Chinese authorities that resulted in personnel injury and vessel damage.”

China’s foreign ministry, in response to the accusations, said Wednesday that its actions against Philippine troops were “professional and restrained and aimed at stopping the illegal ‘resupply mission’,” adding that its maneuvers did not constitute “direct measures.” 

The clash came just days after Beijing implemented a new administrative law that effectively authorizes the CCG to arrest foreign vessels that “illegally enter China’s territorial waters” and to detain foreign crews for up to 60 days.

But the Philippines and its allies, including the United States, continue to point to an international tribunal ruling invalidating China’s claims to the sea that China ignores.

The U.S. State Department on Monday condemned China’s actions, which it said “threatens regional peace and stability,” and reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to a mutual defense treaty with Manila, which is meant to come into effect should Philippine forces face an “armed attack.”

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