How a Philippine coastguard ship ended up being surrounded by 12 Chinese vessels


It was a rare window into confrontations most have viewed from afar. We were invited on board the Philippine Coastguard Vessel BRP Bagacay.

They were on a resupply mission to Scarborough Shoal – a submerged reef which China claims as its own but is within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

They were meant to be dropping off food and fuel to fishermen who rely on the lives beneath these waters. But they knew, as did we, that this journey was about far more.

It felt as if they wanted to show the world they were willing to stand up to Beijing if Chinese ships tried to block their path.

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Confrontation in South China Sea

Our trip comes off the back of a trilateral summit with Japan and America, where no doubt there were discussions on how to handle China’s expanding interests and increasing manoeuvres in the South China Sea.

We got on the ship on Monday afternoon. By dawn the following day, the tension was already apparent.

Two ships were already trailing behind our vessel – more than three hours away from Scarborough Shoal.

There has long been a game of brinkmanship in this waterway – where about one-third of the world’s shipping passes through. But this felt more choreographed and intense than it has for some time.

The Philippine vessel was damaged as a result of water cannons.
The Philippine vessel was damaged as a result of water cannons

Soon, the captain told us 12 ships were encircling our vessel.

They swerved in front of the Filipino crew, who exchanged warnings over the radio.

On the deck, the crew rushed towards buoys every time the Chinese edged closer – trying to protect themselves in case there was a collision. We could see the Chinese crew taking pictures – just metres away from us.

Then suddenly, a volley of water was fired at the boat. The force of it seemed to take even the experienced crew on board by surprise.

12 vessels were surrounding the Philippine ship as it headed to Scarborough Shoal - a submerged reef claimed by both China and the Philippines.
12 vessels were surrounding the Philippine ship as it headed to Scarborough Shoal

We were on the stern of the vessel and got soaked. As we were ushered inside, the roof of part of the deck that some of us had spent the previous night sleeping on was ripped apart. Despite the damage, the water cannons continued to fire.

Within hours the Chinese coastguard was trying to get the first word out to the world about the incident.

They say the Philippine vessel we were on has been “expelled”.

The team on board the Filipino vessel tell us they’re turning back because the other ship they were travelling alongside has had its radar damaged by the water cannons.

Read more:
US accuses Beijing of ‘bullying’ in South China Sea
China building airstrip on disputed island, satellite images suggest

There is arguably one silent player in this fraught moment – America.

The US has recently deepened its military and diplomatic ties with the Philippines. It’s described China’s actions as “coercive and unlawful”.

It has also made clear that due to a joint defence treaty, it will take action if Beijing conducts a military attack.

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That’s raised the temperature of this tussle and the spectre of a superpower showdown.

No one wants that yet, but the chances of a dangerous misstep now look far higher.

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