Satellite photos show Chinese vessels near Kota, Panata Islands
MANILA, Philippines — Chinese vessels, believed part of maritime militia, were spotted near Philippine-occupied Kota (Loaita Island) and Panata (Lankiam Cay) Islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) in March and early April, satellite photos showed.
“Satellite images collected on March 12, 16, and 29, and April 7 confirm the presence of Chinese vessels in the area, most of which show every indication of belonging to the maritime militia,” the US-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said.
“In almost every instance, the vessels are riding at anchor, many in large clusters, and without fishing gear in the water,” AMTI noted.
Some of the vessels were spotted half a nautical mile from Panata Island.
One photo shows a 50-meter Chinese fishing trawler near Kota Island on March 12. Four days later, the number increased to eight large trawlers. On March 29, at least 15 large Chinese fishing vessels and eight small boats were in the area.
Thirteen of the Chinese vessels measured roughly 50 meters while two were about 20 meters, the AMTI said.
Some of the vessels were between 2 and 2.5 nautical miles from Kota but most were arrayed around Panata, it added.
“None were engaged in trawling or appeared to have fishing gear deployed,” the AMTI observed.
INQUIRER.net reported early April that there were at least 15 Chinese vessels spotted near Kota Island last March 28.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said at that time that the Philippines would file a protest if the reports on Chinese presence near Philippine-occupied islands are validated.
The AMTI observed that four Chinese trawlers were riding at anchor less than half a nautical mile from Panata Island.
It said this was “considerably closer” than it has ever seen approach a Philippine facility.
“This must be particularly provocative for the Philippine detachment on the cay, who likely rely on frequent resupply and relief from those on Loaita Island,” the AMTI said.
Also on March 29, the AMTI saw a Philippine Navy ship, likely either BRP Benguet or BRP Laguna, about 1 nautical mile to the east of Panata Island, within sight of two Chinese trawlers.
The AMTI also observed that the two 20-meter Chinese vessels spotted in the area were each towing three small boats.
“These vessels appear similar to the “chopper boats” and their mother ships often seen harvesting giant clams by intentionally destroying coral reefs around the South China Sea, most recently at Scarborough Shoal,” it said.
But it said these vessels were likely engaged in other types of reef fishing or serving as maritime militia as no new scarring was visible on the reefs based on the March 29 or subsequent photos.
Six large vessels and two small boats were spotted around the area last April 7.
These included two 50-meter trawlers riding at anchor, tree of the 20-meter vessels, including one towing two small boats less than half a nautical mile from Panata Island. One 50-meter falling net vessel appeared to be fishing, AMTI said.
As of April 14, there were no Chinese vessels near Kota Island, but Panata Island was not visible on the satellite imagery.
On Tuesday, Western Command chief Vice Adm. Rene Medina confirmed in a chance interview with reporters the presence of Chinese vessels around Kota and Panata Islands.
“They move from one place to another,” he said.
Chinese maritime militia is described by analysts as civilian vessels not actually used for fishing but mainly to assert presence.
The AMTI said the presence of maritime militia was not a one-off incident.
“In any case, this month-long deployment around the two features shows that the flotilla around Thitu Island is not a one-off incident. As prior research has shown, the maritime militia is and will likely remain the most visible arm of China’s power directed at its neighbors in the Spratly Islands,” it said.
The Philippine government recently filed a diplomatic protest over the presence of more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels near Pag-asa Island.
The Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have conflicting claims over the South China Sea – one of the world’s busiest and strategic waterways.
The UN-backed international arbitral tribunal ruled in July 2016 to invalidate China’s “nine-dash line,” which claims nearly all of South China Sea. China refused to acknowledge the ruling and continued to build islands on shoals, complete with airstrips and missile defense systems. /cbb
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