Philippines demands return of firearms taken by Chinese in South China Sea clash

Military chief likens the Chinese to pirates
By Jason Gutierrez for BenarNews
2024.06.19
Manila
Philippines demands return of firearms taken by Chinese in South China Sea clash Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. pins a medal on a Philippine Navy sailor wounded two days earlier when the China Coast Guard blocked a resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal, June 19, 2024.
Armed Forces of the Philippines handout

The Philippines’ military chief on Wednesday demanded that China return firearms its coast guard seized from Filipino troops during what he described as harassment of the country’s resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in which one Filipino sailor lost a finger.  

The incident Monday set off a war of words, with the United States condemning “escalatory and irresponsible actions” by the Chinese Coast Guard and Beijing accusing the Philippine side of deliberately causing a collision.

Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. on Wednesday visited the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command, or WESCOM, in Palawan, a province fronting the South China Sea.  He said he was there to rally the troops, pinning a medal to Navy man Jeffrey Facundo who lost a digit in Monday’s incident. 

Local media in Palawan earlier reported that seven other Filipinos sustained minor injuries when the China Coast Guard intercepted a rigid-hulled inflatable boat belonging to the Philippine Navy in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin and called Ren’ai Jiao by Beijing.

"Our action now is that we are demanding that the Chinese return our rifles and our equipment. And we are also demanding from them to pay for the damages that they have caused," Brawner said in Palawan. Transcripts of his comments were made available to reporters. 

"We cannot allow them to just take and destroy our equipment. For me, this is piracy already because they boarded our boat illegally, they (took) our equipment,” Brawner said. “Again, they are like pirates for doing such actions.”

240619_PH_CH_SCS_smashed.jpg
This handout photo shows what the Philippines armed forces says is communication and navigational equipment smashed by Chinese personnel after they forcibly boarded the AFP’s 9-meter Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat on June 17, 2024. [Armed Forces of the Philippines handout]

The Armed Forces of the Philippines claimed its vessel was forcibly towed, looted and damaged, and that Chinese personnel used machetes, knives and pikes to threaten sailors and damage equipment.

Differing accounts

The incident was first reported by the Chinese press, which accused the Philippine side of setting off the confrontation when it ignored warnings and proceeded to Ayungin, where Manila maintains a rusting Navy ship that was purposely grounded there in 1999 to serve as its outpost in the disputed region.

At a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian repeated that what caused the incident was “deliberate intrusion into the waters of Ren’ai Jiao” and that “the law enforcement action taken by China Coast Guard on the scene was professional and restrained.”

Rear Adm. Alfonso Torres, the WESCOM chief, said the CCG confiscated seven rifles aboard the Philippine Navy boat they intercepted. They also destroyed the boat’s communications and navigational equipment as well as the personal mobile phones of the Filipino personnel.

Torres said the firearms that were seized were disassembled and in gun cases because troops have strict instructions not to show or handle firearms in the vicinity of the disputed shoal, to dial down the tension. He said one of the CCG boats rammed the Philippine Navy boat at high speed, injuring Facundo who lost his right thumb.

The Chinese armed with blades and machetes then boarded the Filipino vessel and pointed weapons at the Filipinos, who fought back, though outmatched, Brawner said, adding that the CCG boats outnumbered the Filipinos eight to one. 

Before disembarking, the Chinese personnel punctured the Philippine boat with a bladed weapon, he added.

While there were guns and weapons aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, the Philippine Navy decided not to use them because “we don’t want a war to break out,” Brawner said.

240619_PH-CH_SCS_axe.jpg
In this handout photo, a Chinese coast guard member is described as brandishing an axe at Philippine troops on a rotation and resupply mission to a disputed reef in the South China Sea, June 17, 2024. [Armed Forces of the Philippines handout]

"The core issue remains -- the illegal presence and actions of  Chinese vessels within our jurisdiction. The continued aggressive behavior of the Chinese Coast Guard is what escalates tensions in the area," Brawner said.

The incident was the third this year in which Philippine personnel have been hurt on missions to rotate and resupply troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal. On March 5 and March 23, Filipino crew members were injured when their supply boats were hit by water cannons from Chinese vessels. 

Tensions between China and the Philippines have notched up in recent months in the resource-rich South China Sea, where six parties hold overlapping claims. Beijing’s are the most expansive, including more than sea, according to analysts.

China has been blocking the Philippines’ efforts to bring supplies to the marines stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre, saying the voyages violate China’s jurisdiction despite the reef being located well inside Manila’s exclusive economic zone.

Jojo Riñoza contributed to this report from Manila

BenarNews is an online news agency affiliated with Radio Free Asia.

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