West Philippine Sea

AFP: Soldiers in Ayungin Shoal didn’t point gun at China Coast Guard

Bea Cupin

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AFP: Soldiers in Ayungin Shoal didn’t point gun at China Coast Guard

RUSTY. The BRP Sierra Madre, used as a military outpost, is marooned in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, March 2014.

Erik de Castro/Reuters

(2nd UPDATE) The AFP says its personnel were simply 'on guard' because the China Coast Guard ventured 'dangerously close' to the BRP Sierra Madre

MANILA, Philippines – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Tuesday, June 4, denied Chinese state media claims that Filipino soldiers aboard the BRP Sierra Madre “pointed guns” at China Coast Guard (CCG) personnel. 

AFP: Soldiers in Ayungin Shoal didn’t point gun at China Coast Guard

“The Armed Forces of the Philippines denies the reported allegations of gun-pointing by our troops stationed in BRP Sierra Madre (LS57) in Ayungin shoal to China Coast Guard personnel. Our personnel are  governed by the Rules of Engagement (ROE) and clearly acted with the highest level of professionalism, restraint, and discipline in the performance of their mission to safeguard our sovereignty and sovereign rights,” said the AFP in a statement. 

On Sunday, June 2, Chinese state-run news site CGTN posted CCG footage they claim showed “at least two men” on the BRP Sierra Madre pointing their guns at the CCG. CGTN said the Filipino soldiers “were receiving an air-drop supply when the CCG responded in accordance with the law.” 

AFP: Soldiers in Ayungin Shoal didn’t point gun at China Coast Guard

The BRP Sierra Madre, purposefully run aground in 1999, is located in Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal, a feature in the West Philippine Sea. China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea or areas that include the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

“Foreign vessels that venture dangerously close to our military vessel and in violation of safe distance protocols necessitate heightened vigilance and alertness from our personnel. Hence, our troops were seen on guard because of the CCG’s provocative presence near BRP Sierra Madre,” said the AFP. 

China has insisted on its claims and activities, including those that violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The 2016 Arbitral ruling also said that China’s then-nine-dash line had no basis in law.

Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines has become more assertive in upholding its sovereign rights and sovereignty claims in the West Philippine Sea. China has responded mostly through aggressive actions – missions to bring supplies or troops to Ayungin Shoal are often tense and precarious, with the CCG not above using strong water cannons against Philippine vessels. 

The Philippines has stated previously that it would not use force – in the form of its water cannons, for instance – in response to Chinese actions. 

Marcos himself has said that the death of a Filipino – be it a serviceman or a civilian – would cause Manila to trigger its Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. 

“We reiterate our commitment to peace and stability in the region, as emphasized by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Any aggressive actions that threaten this peace and the safety of our troops and stations will be met with the necessary and appropriate measures. The AFP remains resolute in its duty to defend  our nation and its people against any threats,” said the AFP in its statement. 

The last high-profile resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal happened in late March 2024, when the CCG used water cannons to blast and damage Unaizah May 4, a civilian ship contracted by the military to bring supplies to the Sierra Madre.

In other parts of the West Philippine Sea, such as Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, the CCG has also used its water cannons in an attempt to block Philippine missions. 

Air drops, the AFP has said in the past, are among its many options in bringing supplies to a handful of soldiers stationed at the Sierra Madre for months on end. But the AFP typically does not deny or confirm airdrops, citing operational security concerns. 

That China claims the Philippines to be the aggressors in the West Philippine Sea is not new. When incidents happen, China is usually quick to blame the confrontation on the Philippines.

At the recently-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Marcos decried China’s “deceptive actions” in the South China Sea.

Thrown back into the sea 

Hours after releasing its statement, the AFP, in a press conference, also released video taken from the BRP Sierra Madre. The clip, a little under three minutes long, shows Chinese personnel aboard rigid hull inflatable boats trying to seize a freshly airdropped package from Filipino soldiers aboard rubber boats. 

“Nakipag-agawan pa sila (They tried to take it from us),” noted AFP chief General Romeo Brawner during the press briefing at Camp Aguinaldo. 

A voice in the video – of military personnel on the BRP Sierra Madre – can be heard ordering personnel on the rubber boats to approach the item, referring to the airdropped supplies. 

The same voice in the video later commands those aboard the BRP Sierra Madre to make sure guns are on standby. The AFP explained this was because the Chinese came as close as 5 to 10 meters away – the closest the Chinese have ever come to the commissioned Navy ship. 

The AFP said that after getting the package and realizing it only contained food items, the Chinese then dumped the package back into the sea. 

The Navy’s spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, chided China for having “zero common sense” in intercepting the airdropped package, pointing out that it’s impossible to bring in construction supplies through airdrop. 

China has protested the Philippine’ occupation of the shoal and considers a red line the shipment of construction materials to the rusting Sierra Madre. The Philippines has said it would do what it takes to ensure the safety and livability of the World War II-era warship.  

Ayungin Shoal is a flashpoint for tensions between the Philippines and China. Beijing, in the past, has accused Manila of reneging on deals which the Philippine say are either invalid or were never made in the first place.  (Link: https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/explainers/agreements-disagreements-west-sea/

Meanwhile in a report from Reuters, China’s foreign ministry said the Philippine actions at the shoal, which it calls Renai Reef, were illegal.

“On this issue the Philippines is the one who makes frequent infringements and provocations,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a briefing on Tuesday.

“The Philippines sending vessels to Ren’ai is in itself illegal, the Philippines is escalating the situation and we cannot accept it.” – with reports from Reuters/Rappler.com 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.