A Chinese Coast Guard vessel temporarily blinded the crew of a Filipino ship last week by repeatedly shining a “military-grade laser” at them, seemingly in an attempt to prevent the ship from delivering supplies to troops in the South China Sea, according to the Philippine military.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said its vessel was assisting a navy mission to deliver food and supplies to marines on a Filipino-occupied shoal on Feb. 6 when a vessel belonging to the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) approached. The Philippine military said on Monday that China should restrain itself from such a “provocative act.”
“The Chinese ship illuminated the green laser light twice toward the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge,” the PCG said in a statement. “The Chinese vessel also made dangerous manoeuvres by approaching about 150 yards from the vessel’s starboard quarter.”
Philippines Coast Guard spokesperson Commodore Armand Balilo told The Associated Press that while the CCG had attempted to block PCG ships in the disputed waters before, this was the first time it had used a laser, harming crew onboard.
The PCG boat, which was escorting a Filipino supply vessel towards the Second Thomas Shoal about 200 kilometres off the coast of the Philippine island of Palawan, responded by changing course, heading instead for nearby Lawak Island. It’s not clear whether the resupply mission was subsequently completed.
“The deliberate blocking of the Philippine government ships to deliver food and supplies to our military personnel…is a blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights in this part of the West Philippine Sea,” the PCG said, using the name the Philippines has adopted for the waters near its western coast.
In 2012, then-president Benigno Aquino officially renamed the part of the South China Sea that lies within Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), reaffirming the Philippines’ position that it has sovereign rights over the area.
China, however, has long contested other nations’ territorial claims in and around the South China Sea, committing acts of intimidation and aggression to try and repel them. It was almost exactly a year ago that a Chinese naval ship similarly shone a military-grade laser at an Australian air force plane that was conducting coastal maritime surveillance in the Arafura Sea, within Australia’s own EEZ.
The Philippines, meanwhile, filed at least 189 diplomatic protests against China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea in 2022 alone. Jose Antonio Custodio, a military historian from the Philippines and fellow at the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers, noted that while the Philippines is no stranger to confrontations in the contested waters, this recent alleged laser attack may have been a pointed act of intimidation—particularly as Manila looks to strengthen military ties with rival nations like the U.S. and Japan.
“I would look at this as one part of the long list of bullying that the Chinese have done to the Philippines in order to intimidate the Philippine government and make it think twice in pursuing its legal rights that China has illegally seized from it,” Custodio told VICE World News. “The EEZ of the Philippines is being stolen by China.”
“It’s not going to lead to war,” he added, “but it’s part of China’s aggressive acts.”
Custodio further noted that the incident comes during an “uptick of Chinese aggressive behaviour,” citing the recent spate of alleged spy balloon sightings in the U.S. Shortly after one of those balloons was shot down by a U.S. military aircraft off the coast of South Carolina earlier this month, Dr. Renato De Castro, international studies professor at the Philippines’ De La Salle University, revealed that a possible spy balloon was also allegedly spotted in the country last year.
China’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, claimed that its coast guard acted in accordance with the law, intervening only after the PCG vessel trespassed into Chinese waters without permission.
“We urge the Philippines to avoid such actions, and the actions of China’s staff are professional and restrained," said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, according to Reuters.
Custodio disagreed with the claims.
“That’s an international waterway, which is part of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone as awarded by UNCLOS [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] to the Philippines,” he said. “China has no business there. And yet its interpretation is that the Philippines is trespassing. That’s why that incident happened.”
Nonetheless, Filipino authorities remain steadfast in defending their claims to sovereignty in the area.
“The PCG will continue to exercise due diligence in protecting the country’s territorial integrity against foreign aggression,” said Coast Guard admiral Artemio M Abu in a statement.
“Despite the dangerous manoeuvre of the much larger CCG ships and their aggressive actions at sea, the PCG ships will always be in the West Philippine Sea to sustain our presence and assert our sovereign rights.”