Witness to history: Stories of rescue and life-saving missions in S.China Sea encapsulate PLA Navy’s commitment to humanitarianism and neighborliness
Published: Jan 23, 2024 08:47 PM
Editor's Note: 

Although the US and the Philippines have repeatedly provoked China in the South China Sea issue, weaponizing fishermen against China, the story of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy rescuing foreign fishermen in the South China Sea continues to uphold the humanitarian principle of "search and rescue knows no borders." 

Eyewitnesses who participated in the successful rescue of an injured Filipino fisherman by a PLA Navy vessel cruising near China's Nansha Islands in September 2023, as well as a Vietnamese fisherman whose limb was amputated and received urgent treatment at a Chinese hospital in the Nansha Islands in October 2023, reveal captivating moments that demonstrate China's capability and commitment to provide strong security guarantees in the South China Sea through practical actions. The gestures, which highlight the country's willingness to set aside disputes and prioritize human lives, promote peaceful and harmonious coexistence in the South China Sea.

This story is a part of the Global Times' "Witness to history" series, which features first-hand accounts from witnesses who were at the forefront of historic moments. From scholars, politicians and diplomats to ordinary citizens, their authentic reflections on the impact of historical moments help reveal a sound future for humanity through the solid forward steps taken in the past and the present. 

PLA naval vessel Aba cruises in the eastern maritime zone of the Nansha Islands, on September 17, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Bin

PLA naval vessel Aba cruises in the eastern maritime zone of the Nansha Islands, on September 17, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Bin

'Thank you, Chinese Navy!'

On September 17, 2023, when the PLA naval vessel Aba was approached by two Filipino fishermen seeking help during its cruise in the eastern maritime zone of the Nansha Islands, Wen Qi, a military doctor aboard the vessel, noticed a Filipino fisherman on a small fishing boat waving his arms and shouting for help while in distress. 

The Aba vessel quickly responded and used a hanging ladder to transfer the injured fisherman aboard for emergency assistance. Wen soon learned that one of the fishermen sustained wounds inflicted by propeller blades and was profusely bleeding. 

Due to the slow speed of the small fishing boat, the Filipino fishermen couldn't reunite with their mother ship in the short term. They desperately sought help for about six hours until they saw a silver lining in the appearance of the Chinese navy vessel.

"We found that the injured fisherman had lost a lot of blood, had low blood pressure, and had difficulty in expressing himself. Without timely treatment, there was a high likelihood that he would have lost his life," said Wen.

After examination, Wen found multiple deep lacerations exposing bone on the injured fisherman's left foot. Prolonged exposure to a moist environment made some of the tissue around the wound necrotized.

Wen administered immediate emergency treatment to the wound, and also provided the injured fisherman with bread, milk, and drinking water to help restore his strength. After the fisherman showed signs of basic cognitive recovery, the Aba vessel deployed a small shipborne boat and assigned officers to escort the injured fisherman and his companion back to their mother ship. 

Before leaving, Wen also prepared medication, hydrogen peroxide, bandages, gauze, and other medical supplies for the injured fisherman, and wrote down follow-up instructions on paper in English.

"Thank you, Chinese Navy!" The rescued Filipino fishermen gave thumbs up to the PLA Navy officers and medics, while other fishermen waved in gratitude. 

Witnessing this scene made Wen feel both relieved and proud. She told the Global Times that the PLA Navy occasionally encounters injured fishermen seeking help in territorial waters during patrol missions, and the PLA Navy always actively offers assistance out of humanitarian principles.

"We embody the concept of a maritime community of shared future and show our principle as a responsible major country. This is one of our core missions in the South China Sea," said Wen.

By providing timely medical assistance and initiating rescue operations, the PLA Navy not only demonstrates its professionalism and capability, but also fosters goodwill and trust among nations in the region. 

Such acts of humanitarian aid showcase China's commitment to regional stability, cooperation, and the well-being of its neighboring countries, encouraging greater collaboration and mutual assistance in times of need.

PLA naval officers from the vessel Aba transfer an injured Filipino fisherman to his mother ship by small boats, on September 17, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Bin

PLA naval officers from the vessel Aba transfer an injured Filipino fisherman to his mother ship by small boats, on September 17, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Bin

Protector of maritime community

On October 9, 2023, in the waters near Yongshu Reef, part of China's Nansha Islands, multiple Vietnamese fishermen on the fishing boat QNG96562TS attracted the attention of the PLA Navy's Qujing vessel by waving their hands and approaching it. The Vietnamese fishing boat had an accident while at sea, resulting in one fisherman suffering a life-threatening complete fracture and detachment of his right upper arm. 

After receiving the distress signal, the PLA's Nansha garrison command quickly dispatched a small boat to investigate together with the Qujing vessel, and initiated  rescue protocols. The military doctor on board the Qujing vessel provided emergency treatment to the injured fisherman, while the Yongshu Reef Hospital on Nansha Islands prepared to receive the patient to administer further treatment.

Luo Tianhang, the deputy chief physician of the general surgery department at the Yongshu Reef Hospital, who was part of the treatment team, told the Global Times that the hospital quickly organized a medical team comprised of several senior consulting doctors, and diagnosed the injury as a complete detachment and destruction of the right upper arm with a lung contusion.

After explaining the surgical procedures to the accompanying Vietnamese personnel and signing relevant informed consent forms, the medical team performed surgery on the injured Vietnamese fisherman. After his condition stabilized, he was sent back to his mother ship.

Media sources reported that Yongshu Reef is about 740 nautical miles away from the nearest piece of land, and it normally takes 2 to 3 days for ships to travel one way. Major illnesses can only be treated by supply ships or passing vessels so the optimal treatment period can easily be missed without the presence of the Yongshu Reef Hospital.

To better provide efficient maritime rescue and treatment, for both domestic and international operations, the Yongshu Reef Hospital will reportedly establish health clinics on other islands and reefs aside from Yongshu Reef in the future, equipped with inter-island medical ships, to achieve wider, comprehensive medical and health coverage in the South China Sea. 

In addition to the PLA Navy, China Coast Guard has also successfully rescued foreign fishermen on several occasions.

On August 18, 2023, Chinese coast guard vessel 5103 rescued a Vietnamese fisherman, who had been floating in the sea for three days before being rescued, while cruising in the southern part of the South China Sea.

After rescuing the fisherman, coast guard officers provided him with drinking water, food, and other daily necessities, and checked his physical condition.

An injured Vietnamese fisherman is transferred to the Yongshu Reef Hospital on the Nansha Islands for emergency treatment, on October 9, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Shi Qing

An injured Vietnamese fisherman is transferred to the Yongshu Reef Hospital on the Nansha Islands for emergency treatment, on October 9, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Shi Qing

It is one of the important duties of the China Coast Guard to carry out international cooperation in maritime law enforcement, for which the coast guards of China and Vietnam signed a memorandum of cooperation in June 2016 to establish institutional cooperative relations.

The practice of China's humanitarian rescue also extends to foreign ships in the South China Sea region that experience malfunctions due to typhoons or other extreme weather conditions. 

On September 2, 2023, the Nansha garrison command discovered a Liberian cargo ship, sailing from Singapore to North China's Tangshan, with an engine fuel injector leak, resulting in a loss of power. The ship was drifting toward Yongshu Reef and was in imminent danger. 

To eliminate danger, the Nansha garrison command immediately assessed the situation, and a joint rescue operation swiftly commenced. 

The Chinese maritime authorities immediately decided to dispatch the South China Sea Rescue 115 ship, which was on standby at the Yongshu Reef, along with an English translator, to sail toward the malfunctioning cargo ship and prepare for emergency towing. The standby tugboat of the garrison immediately prepared for tow and rescue. China Coast Guard vessel 5304 continued to monitor the vicinity of the malfunctioning cargo ship and provided escort. 

"On that night, the South China Sea Rescue ship 115 began towing the malfunctioning cargo ship and successfully eliminating the potential of the ship running aground. Faced with the complex maritime environment, Chinese rescue forces closely cooperated, maintaining real-time communication with the cargo ship, and ensured that it remained in a safe navigational channel," Rao Hushui, the captain of the South China Sea Rescue ship 115, told the Global Times. 

"Thanks to the efficient coordination of the military, police, and civilian forces, we finally prevented a major maritime accident," Rao recalled. 

Over the years, China has adhered to the concept of a maritime community of shared future and has been committed to promoting global maritime governance. Currently, the seas face not only traditional security threats such as piracy and terrorism, but also non-traditional security threats such as marine environmental pollution, natural disasters, and accidents involving civilian facilities. Representatives from various countries have called for unity, cooperation, and joint responses to these challenges at multiple international forums.

Experts say that from rescuing foreign fishermen to assisting distressed foreign fishing vessels, China has always actively participated in maritime governance, maintaining maritime peace, stability, and good order, and is a firm guardian of a maritime community of shared future.