PH military spots 136 Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island since January 2020
MANILA, Philippines — More than 100 Chinese vessels have been spotted near the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea since the start of the year, in what could be a sign that Beijing has all but ignored Manila’s diplomatic protests and consultative talks to continue its aggression in the area.
Vice Adm. Rene Medina, head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Western Command (Wescom), said they have monitored 136 Chinese fishing vessels near Pag-asa from Jan. 1 to Feb. 25.
The 136 boats were not the cumulative number of sightings for the said period but the total number of unique vessels that were identified through their bow numbers, he told INQUIRER.net.
“The highest number of Chinese fishing vessels monitored [on a single day] was on Feb. 17 with 76 vessels sighted in the westernmost sandbar,” he said.
Two China Coast Guard vessels were also spotted in the same period in the area, while one People’s Liberation Army (Navy) ship was sighted in February.
However, as of Friday (Feb. 28) Medina said there were only two to three Chinese fishing vessels loitering near the island in the last five days.
There are three sandbars between Pag-asa and the Philippine-claimed but China-controlled Zamora (Subi) Reef, which the Chinese had developed into a massive military outpost equipped with hangars for combat aircraft, missile storage and radar facilities.
Pag-asa is the largest outpost occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands and the only one with a civilian community.
American think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has extensively reported about these Chinese boats, which it said have been operating in large numbers near Pag-asa Island since December 2018, around the same time that the construction by the Philippines of a beaching ramp and sheltered port on the island began.
China appears intent to keep its vessels there, as its presence remained constant in the area despite a number of diplomatic protests filed by the Philippine government in 2019.
The presence of the Chinese vessels near the island is illegal and violates Philippine sovereignty, the Department of Foreign Affairs said last year.
Chinese maritime militia
The Department of National Defense (DND), in a report to Congress in 2019, acknowledged that these vessels may be part of China’s maritime militia, which positions China’s naval force in civilian disguise in the West Philippine Sea without provoking a conventional military response.
“China has been utilizing fishing vessels to discreetly conduct surveillance, search and rescue operations, as well as provide assistance to law enforcement agencies,” the DND wrote.
It predicted that China would continue to use these vessels, which could be used for “asymmetric warfare of sea control and sea denial, such as swarming tactics and ramming of other claimants’ vessels in the area, enabling it to make advancements in the maritime region without causing tension in the area.”
International experts said that these vessels are playing an increasing role in China’s assertion of its maritime claims without appearing to be directly responsible for it. Its civilian nature makes it difficult for any South China Sea claimant to take China to task directly.
Analysts have described Beijing’s layers of deployment as “cabbage strategy,” where the disputed areas are surrounded by fishing boats, but backed up by the Chinese Coast Guard and PLA Navy, like leaves of cabbage.
The US Department of Defense said in a report to the US Congress in 2019 that China’s maritime militia “plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve their political goals without fighting.” They have played a key role in the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012; Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig standoff in 2014; and large incursions in waters near Senkakus in 2016.
These vessels train and assist the Chinese Coast Guard and PLA Navy in tasks which include fisheries protection, surveillance and reconnaissance and safeguarding maritime claims, it said.
Edited by TSB
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