Weapons of choice in China’s territorial disputes? Axes, knives, ‘jostling.’

When Chinese forces violently intercepted Philippine naval ships Wednesday in a disputed area of the South China Sea, they didn’t use handguns or rifles, let alone the more high-tech weaponry now widely seen in modern conflicts.

Instead, videos shared by the Philippine military showed the Chinese Coast Guard wielding pickaxes and knives as they made their bid to exert control over the area. Experts say that the use of these simple weapons was a tactical choice.

“The underlying logic is something like, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but are less likely to lead to war, probably,’” said Daniel Mattingly, a Yale University political science professor who studies the Chinese military.

China, a sprawling country that shares land borders with 14 countries and has maritime borders with a further six, has volatile territorial disputes with several of its neighbors. But over recent years, its troops have often used simple weapons while battling over these borders, despite the considerable advances in technology used by the Chinese military in the period.


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The tactic has been used notably on China’s border with India, according to unverified videos of clashes that have been shared on social media.

In a 2022 clash with the Indian military over a portion of northeastern India that China claims, Chinese and Indian forces appeared to engage in hand-to-hand combat and use stones and makeshift clubs as weapons. In 2017, front-line Chinese and Indian troops did not carry weapons and instead fought by “jostling” — or bumping chests — amid China’s effort to seize land from tiny Bhutan, a close ally of India’s.

China’s use of nonconventional weaponry may be a strategic move to avoid sparking escalation and to stave off international attention, particularly from the United States. But experts warned that while it may have worked this time, it was risky.

“Maybe [China] could point to the idea that these were tools and not weapons in this instance [in the South China Sea],” said Harrison Prétat, deputy director and fellow with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But we’re getting pretty close to the line.”

In the incident this week in the South China Sea, the Chinese Coast Guard boarded Philippine navy vessels to damage and confiscate equipment, according to Philippine officials, who said China aimed to stop Philippine ships from resupplying the Sierra Madre warship on the Second Thomas Shoal, a reef that has become a focal point of the maritime dispute.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington disputed this and asserted that the Philippines had illegally intruded into waters without China’s permission and “violated international law.”

“The Chinese side took necessary measures in accordance with [the] law to safeguard its sovereignty, which was lawful and justified, and done in a professional and restrained manner,” Liu Pengyu wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said that an armed attack on a Philippine government vessel in the South China Sea would trigger the 1951 mutual treaty that commits the United States and the Philippines to defend each other in the Pacific.

“Not using guns makes it ambiguous whether the United States is obligated to step in and potentially aid the Philippines,” Mattingly said. “If they did use guns, then there is a stronger case that the U.S. should.”

The Philippines said Friday morning that it does not intend to invoke that treaty in response to this week’s altercation, with Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin telling reporters that the government did not consider this week’s confrontation with the Chinese Coast Guard to be an armed attack.

“We saw bolo, axe, nothing beyond that,” Bersamin said, according to the Associated Press.

While the use of sharp objects could limit the risk of escalation, it can still prove dangerous and even lethal. In the South China Sea this week, a Philippine sailor lost a finger. In June 2020, 20 Indian soldiers — and at least four Chinese soldiers — died, according to official accounts from both nations.

China and India have disputed the 2,100-mile Himalayan border for decades. Crude battles date as far back as the 1970s, when the armies confronted each other via fistfights and stone pelting. Under the terms of a 1996 bilateral agreement, border troops are barred from using firearms within two kilometers of the border, called the Line of Actual Control.

Recent Sino-Indian border disputes have centered on the Tawang sector, a sector that lies within the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, as well as around Ladakh — at India’s far northeastern tip — and the Galwan Valley. A clash in 2022 over the Tawang sector took the shape of a gun-free faceoff, leading to hand-to-hand combat and troop injuries. This clash marked the most serious incident between India and China since 2020.

On another Himalayan border, in 2017, Chinese and Indian troops squared off in Bhutan over an area that China claimed belonged to them but that India and Bhutan maintained to be Bhutanese. In that skirmish, too, there were no reports of gun use or weaponry. Instead, the fighting involved “jostling,” in which soldiers from India and soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army bumped chests, without punching or kicking, to push the other side backward but did not open fire.

Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in India and a lecturer at Yale, said there was often gunfire on India’s borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. “The PLA’s culture is very different from what a Western military culture would be, where use of weaponry is far more frequent,” he said.

But September 2020 brought a deviation from this norm, when — amid public pressure following the deaths of Indian soldiers in a clash months before — shots were fired at the border for the first time in decades, with both sides accusing the other of firing warning shots.

“Once either side decides that the norm no longer exists, it doesn’t exist on both sides,” Singh said. “Think of them as very weak guardrails, which can be broken off and then restarted.”

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