Philippine video shows clash with Chinese coastguard that injured soldier

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Chinese coastguard forces boxed in Philippine military resupply boats, threatening their personnel with axes and knives and hacking at inflatable vessels, according to the first video footage released of a clash between the countries in the South China Sea on Monday morning.

Several clips released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines late on Wednesday showed Chinese coastguard speedboats, assisted by at least one larger coastguard ship, ramming the Philippine boats and trapping them between the Chinese ones with ropes.

The incident, which left one Philippine soldier severely injured, marked the sharpest escalation in the stand-off over the Second Thomas Shoal, a disputed reef inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone where Manila intentionally grounded a former US Navy ship in 1999 and which it has been using as a military outpost.

The clash occurred amid heightened concern over the conduct of Chinese state vessels after Beijing put into effect last week new rules allowing its coastguard to board vessels, use lethal force and arrest the crew of foreign ships in waters it claims.

It was not clearly visible from the videos whether Chinese coastguard officials boarded the Philippine boats. But a Philippine military official said the Chinese side seized the inflatable boats and confiscated crates they were carrying containing guns. Because this would have required boarding the vessels, it would mark the first time Beijing has acted under the new rules.

In the videos released by Manila, Chinese coastguard personnel on the speedboats can also be seen wielding large knives and axes. One man on another coastguard ship is shown throwing objects in the direction of the Philippine boats.

A senior Philippine official said the fact that the Chinese officers did not use or display firearms led Manila to conclude that Beijing was trying to limit escalation. “This is not the moment where the dam breaks and they start shooting as they threaten to do under their new law,” he said.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr warned last month that the death of a Philippine service member or citizen “by a wilful act” in the South China Sea would constitute “very close to what we define as an act of war”.

In a departure from past incidents, which were publicised by the Philippines, this week’s incident was revealed by China’s coastguard.

The Chinese force claimed on Monday morning Philippine vessels had rammed a Chinese coastguard ship during what Beijing called a legitimate law enforcement operation against Philippine boats “illegally trespassing” in Chinese waters.

Security experts view the growing tension over Second Thomas Shoal as one of the biggest risks for conflict in the region involving China and the US. Washington and Manila have a mutual defence treaty, which the former has repeatedly said covers the land feature and includes violence involving coastguard, rather than military, forces.

US state secretary Antony Blinken spoke to his Philippine counterpart Enrique Manalo on Wednesday and said China’s “dangerous and irresponsible actions . . . undermine regional peace and stability”, according to a state department statement. Blinken reaffirmed Washington’s “ironclad commitments” to the Philippines under their mutual defence treaty.

Manila’s National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, a cross-ministerial group handling South China Sea security, met on Thursday morning and would issue further comment on the clash, said a Philippine National Security Council official.

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