AFP Chief denies Filipino soldiers pointed guns at China Coast Guard in tense confrontation

General Romeo Brawner Jr. says it was China Coast Guard who seized a food package meant for Ayungin troops during a resupply mission last month.

General Romeo Brawner Jr.jpg
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff, General Romeo Brawner Jr. holds a press conference at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on June 4, 2024 to give updates on the confrontation between AFP and Chinese personnel during a resupply mission in Ayungin Shoal last month. (Photo by Martin A. Sadongdong / MANILA BULLETIN)

General Romeo Brawner Jr., Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), belied reports that some Filipino soldiers directed their firearms towards China Coast Guard (CCG) personnel during a resupply mission at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) last month.

In a press conference at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on Tuesday, June 4, Brawner said that the troops were simply acting on a "self-defense" since CCG personnel came as close as five to 10 meters from BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded Philippine Navy (PN) vessel which serves as an AFP outpost in the contested shoal, to seize one of the four food packages meant for the troops.

The resupply mission was held on May 19 via airdrop method.

According to Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, PN spokesperson for WPS, there were four sorties during the mission, with each sortie supposed to drop a food package carrying rice, biscuits, canned goods, and other provisions near the BRP Sierra Madre.

However, during the second sortie, the Chinese Military Commission -- which supervises the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and the CCG -- deployed two rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) to forcibly take the second food package at approximately five to 10 meters from the BRP Sierra Madre, Trinidad shared.

It was the first time that the Chinese RHIBs operated that close to BRP Sierra Madre, Trinidad said. At the time, there were also three CCG ships and 12 Chinese maritime militia vessels (CMMVs) in the area while the BRP Sierra Madre fielded two rubber boats to get the supplies.

"When the second package was dropped, they went to the area to recover it despite the fact that our boats were already there. Nakipag-agawan pa sila, inunahan pa tayo (They wanted to take it away from us, they wanted to get hold of it first)," Brawner said.

"The thing was when they opened the packages and when they saw that it’s only food stuff, they threw it back into the water. Siguro naghahanap sila ng construction materials (Probably they were trying to find construction materials)," he stated, noting that some of the food items sunk into the sea and were considered as wasted.

Other items that were retrieved -- biscuits, rice, coffee and bread -- were brought by the AFP troops to the BRP Sierra Madre.

"Wala silang karapatan na kunin 'yung sarili nating supply because ang laman lang naman ng mga supply natin as you saw were food items and some medicines because sometimes, nagkakasakit 'yung mga sundalo natin onboard (They have no right to confiscate our supply because it only contains food items and some medicines because sometimes, our troops get sick onboard)," Brawner said.

All the three other food packages were successfully brought to the Filipino troops.

The proximity of the CCG personnel to BRP Sierra Madre raised the alarm of the AFP personnel, prompting them to act according to their rules of engagement (ROE), according to the military chief.

The ROE simply means that foreign vessels venturing dangerously close to Philippine military vessels and in violation of safe distance protocols "necessitate heightened vigilance and alertness" from AFP personnel, hence, the troops were "seen on-guard because of the CCG's provocative presence near BRP Sierra Madre."

That same scenario was caught on camera and published by Chinese media site CGTN where it claimed that at least two men onboard the BRP Sierra Madre pointed their guns toward the CCG personnel.

"On the issue of the ponting of the guns, we are denying that any of our sodliers pointed deliberately their guns to any of the Chinese in the RHIBs," Brawner said.

However, he admitted that the soldiers were armed since the BRP Sierra Madre is a PN-commissioned ship and therefore "it is authorized to have weapons onboard, both crew-served weapons and individual weapons for our soldiers based on the concept of self-defense."

"We have the right to defend ourselves from any armed attack or external attack," Brawner emphaszied. "From the point of view of our soldiers, [the Chinese presence] posed a danger, a threat dahil napakalapit na nila (because they came really close)."

Prior to the confrontation, Brawner said the CCG also blocked a medical evacuation (medevac) of a Fiipino trooper who fell ill while onboard BRP Sierra Madre.

He said they had to ask for help from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to deploy its patrolling ship just to transfer the sick personnel to Palawan and have him hospitalized.

Rising tension

The tense confrontation came to light just days after President Marcos spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) defense forum in Singapore last week where he emphasized that the Philippines is resolute in building up its own defense capabilities, harnessing partnerships, and standing up against attempts to undermine regional stability.  

Brawner considered the latest actions of China as "illegal."

"In the international order, you're not supposed to confiscate the supplies of another country even in war," he said.

The latest incidents were already reported by the AFP to the Department of National Defense (DND) and Department of Foreign Affairs for possible course of actions.

"We have done our part, it's up to the DFA whether they are going to file a protest," Brawner said.