The Chinese Navy deployed two missile attack craft to chase down a Filipino vessel in the West Philippine Sea Thursday, the first recorded use of Chinese military vessels against civilians since the West Philippine Sea controversy began.
The Filipino civilian vessel with the ABS-CBN news team aboard was traveling across various reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea close to the mainland of Palawan to see where Filipino fisherfolk have moved their livelihood since the large number of Chinese vessels have overwhelmed their former fishing grounds, and since the artificial islands built by China have been established.
After visiting two other shoals, the news team tried to make its way to Ayungin Shoal, where one of the nine Philippine military detachments is located in the West Philippine Sea, thinking the presence of Philippine forces in the area provides assurance enough for Filipino fisherfolk to anchor there. Ayungin is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
The civilian vessel was four miles from the entrance of Ayungin Shoal when a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel was spotted in the south side of the shoal. The Filipino crew observed the ship for a few minutes, until it received a radio message from the China Coast Guard asking for them to identify themselves. However, the message was in English, and the crew was unable to respond. This moment reveals the stark consequences of the language barrier that many Filipino fisherfolk are unlikely to be able to hurdle as many speak in local dialect or in Tagalog.
The Filipino captain instead decided to steer the boat away from Ayungin Shoal in a complete 180-degree turn, in hopes of communicating to the China Coast Guard vessel that it was no longer pursuing its earlier route into Ayungin. However, the China Coast Guard vessel accelerated its speed and started to chase the Filipino vessel. The Chinese ship followed the Filipino ship on its path home to mainland Palawan for an hour, getting so close that bow number 5101 was visible to the naked eye, sometimes sailing beside the Filipino vessel on either side.
CCG 5101 slowed down and turned away after an hour to the relief of the Filipino crew, who by this time had been following a straight path back to mainland Palawan. However, two smaller, faster vessels emerged in the horizon, apparently giving chase to the Filipino boat. Within minutes, the unique shape and design of the Houbei Type 22 missile fast attack craft became visible. The two missile-capable boats resumed the chase.
GPS coordinates indicate that the Filipino vessel was only 90 nautical miles from mainland Palawan following a straight path home when the missile boats were chasing it down.
These Type 22 missile vessels have been photographed by the news team in Mischief Reef on an aerial patrol with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on April 3. The same vessels have been photographed by the AFP Western Command anchored at Mischief Reef on March 29. Open sources show that these vessels each have 2 short-range missiles mounted on its body, with a gun as a secondary weapon.
Mischief Reef is the largest of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys. It is also one of the three most militarized, with a 3-kilometer runway, hangars for combat aircraft, and radars. Mischief is also the closest to Ayungin Shoal, and closest to Philippine mainland.
The missile boats pursued the Filipino vessel for 20 to 30 minutes before pulling out and returning to the direction of Mischief Reef.
While China Coast Guard vessels have been known to chase and block Philippine vessels in the many parts of the West Philippine Sea that China has seized control of — like in Scarborough Shoal — this appears to be the first documented instance of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel used to chase down a Filipino boat that was offering no form of resistance.
Mischief Reef, Ayungin Shoal, and the path of the Filipino vessel are all inside the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, where international law states that Filipinos should be free to sail, fly, and benefit from its marine resources.