Chinese sea militia swarms around Pag-asa Island – military
MANILA, Philippines — The Armed Forces of the Philippines has monitored an extraordinary surge of vessels from a Chinese fishing fleet around Philippine-occupied islands in the West Philippine Sea this year.
More than 600 Chinese fishing vessels have been recorded surrounding the sandbars of Pag-asa Island (Thitu) for the first quarter of 2019 alone.
“Foreign vessels monitored in Pag-as Island are all Chinese fishing vessels deployed in the vicinity of the sandbar,” said Marine Lt. Col. Elpidio Factor, AFP Western Command’s assistant chief for Unified Command Staff for Intelligence, at the Regional Development Council and Regional Peace and Order Council special meeting last Thursday.
The highest number of Chinese vessels recorded in a single day was at 87 last Feb. 10.
“These vessels are considered as Chinese maritime militia that are occasionally complemented by the Chinese Coast Guard to sustain China’s assertive presence in the vicinity of the sandbars,” Factor said.
There are three sandbars between Pag-asa and China-controlled Zamora Reef (Subi Reef), one of the biggest military outposts in the Spratly Islands.
Early this month, Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo raised his concerns on the presence of the Chinese vessels around the sandbars, which he said are blocking the path of local fishermen.
President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military in 2017 to stop the construction of a shelter supposedly for Filipino fishermen on Sandy Cay, one of the three sandbars, after China protested because of a previous agreement not to occupy new features in the South China Sea.
The government also previously played down reports of Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano on the presence of Chinese fishing vessels around Pag-asa in 2017.
Not just Pag-asa
The Chinese vessels are also monitored on Philippine-occupied islands beyond Pag-asa Island.
The vessels were monitored around Panata and Kota islands, Factor said.
In Ayungin Shoal, Chinese Coast Guard vessels were occasionally present since January, according to military records. As of last week, however, there was none recorded.
There seems to be no stopping China in making its presence felt in the South China Sea based on the assessment of the Western Command.
“China will continue the deployment of maritime and aerial assets to sustain its maritime control and assertive presence in the disputed area,” Factor said.
But he said the US and its allies would continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) to prevent China from completely militarizing the disputed waterway.
Neighbors like Vietnam and Malaysia are “likely to maintain and secure their respective claims without compromising diplomatic cooperation with other claimants and promote stability in the region.”
Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative had earlier released a series of reports on China’s maritime militia in the Spratlys.
According to the group, these boats are intended to intimidate other claimants and to stop the development work currently underway on Pag-asa Island.
But the ongoing construction continues. Factor said they were more than halfway done building the beaching ramp, which is expected to be finished by July 2019. The repair of the airstrip will soon follow. /atm
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