May 21, 2024


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BBC on board a boat chased by China in the South China Sea

BBC on board a boat chased by China in the South China Sea

  • author, Jonathan Head
  • Role, Southeast Asia Correspondent
  • Report from South China Sea

We could see the larger Chinese ship approaching, both our ships traveling at high speed. The Chinese crew was close enough to see their faces. Two of them photographed us, and we photographed them.

The BBC was on board the Philippine Coast Guard ship BRB Bagakai when it was approached by Chinese ships on Tuesday.

Philippine crews raced to hang yellow foam barriers over the side in preparation for impact. Suddenly, the Chinese ship made a sharp turn across our bow, forcing the Filipino captain to suddenly slow down. The distance between the two ships was less than five metres.

We were racing toward Scarborough Shoal, a small atoll located 220 kilometers (137 miles) west of the Philippine coast, but also claimed by China.

Comment on the photo, Chinese coastguard officers filmed a BBC crew

The Chinese ships were determined to stop us, and there were a lot of them – at one point there were 10 of them from the coast guard and naval militia.

The Filipino captain relied on the speed and maneuverability of his Japanese-built vessel to outmaneuver the Chinese, and got within 600 meters of shallow water, the closest yet, he told us.

We were quickly taken inside, where we could hear jets of water hitting the metal walls of the ship. They smashed the canopy at the stern, and mangled the railing on one side.

The second ship in our convoy, which was carrying supplies for Filipino fishermen, was severely damaged after being subjected to ten direct hits from a water cannon.

This maritime game of cat and mouse is not new in the South China Sea. But these confrontations have become more frequent and more dangerous, since President Bongbong Marcos has allowed the Coast Guard to challenge the Chinese presence in the disputed areas much more aggressively than in the past.

Comment on the photo, Several Chinese Coast Guard ships followed the boat

“The Chinese government has always said there is a red line,” said Commodore Guy Tarella, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in the West Philippine Sea, the Filipino name for the areas claimed by China.

“They said we couldn’t cross the 12 nautical mile limit of shallow waters. But under this administration, we have actually broken that red line, to show that China has no respect for international law.”

The mission we were on is part of that stronger response.

Its official purpose was to provide food and fuel to Filipino fishermen who have worked at Scarborough Shoal for decades, but they have complained of ongoing harassment since the Chinese Coast Guard took control of it in 2012.

An international court ruling in 2016 said that key elements of China's claims in the South China Sea, such as the nine-dash line along with a number of activities in Philippine waters, were illegal. China says it does not recognize the ruling.

Comment on the photo, Philippine Coast Guard officers monitored the Chinese ships

The numbers of Chinese ships visible around the shoals were frightening. We can see them in every direction, far superior to anything the Philippines can deploy.

“We are the David to their Goliath,” Commodore Tarriela said.

It is difficult to see where this new policy will lead President Marcos, even though he has received strong support from US President Joe Biden and has expanded a long-term modernization program for the armed forces.

The Chinese ships were clearly skilled in their tactics, although they were risky. Perhaps they could maintain their siege almost indefinitely.

After we confronted their ships, China issued a statement saying that it had succeeded in expelling the Philippine ships, which it accused of entering its territorial waters.

It is true that BRP Bagacay withdrew from Scarborough Shoal after being hit by water cannons from both sides. The second ship, which was carrying supplies and much of its damaged electronic equipment, was still surrounded by Chinese ships 20 kilometers behind us, so our ship returned to help it.

But both ships remained at sea, outside China's “red line” but within its notorious “nine-dash line,” which defines its expansive claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

Comment on the photo, The fishermen approached the boat to receive assistance from the Philippine Coast Guard