Chinese militia boats linger near PH island to ‘simply occupy space’
MANILA, Philippines — For more than a year now, dozens and at times hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels are forming a swarm near Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea, the only Philippine-occupied outpost with a civilian community.
“The deployment is now at least 456 days and counting,” said Gregory Poling on Twitter on Monday (March 2). He is the executive director of Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which closely tracks these Chinese boats.
These vessels are suspected to be part of Chinese maritime militia, which conducts surveillance, search and rescue operations, as well as provide assistance to China Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army (Navy). They started lingering near Pag-asa Island in December 2018, when the Philippine government started the construction of a beaching ramp and sheltered port on the island.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said this is a “cause for concern” and they have forwarded note verbales to the Chinese Embassy.
The Philippine government had filed several diplomatic protests about the presence of the vessels in 2019 but it appears that the vessels are there to stay.
“There are positive reactions. Sometimes the vessels reduce in numbers,” Esperon told reporters on Tuesday (March 3) on the sidelines of National Task Force West Philippine Sea briefing to members of the House of Representatives.
He said he expected China’s deployment to continue, however, especially since China’s largest man-made island, a military base, in Spratlys is only 14 nautical miles away from Pag-Asa.
“They remain in that area because they have a big base now,” Esperon said. He was referring to Zamora (Subi) Reef.
“That is a facility with a 3-kilometer runway with a harbor and land area with 586 hectares, which is double of Bonifacio Global City. It has indeed become a major facility there which the fishing vessels could use for shelter,” Esperon added.
The Philippine military’s Western Command said it has monitored 136 Chinese fishing vessels near Pag-asa Island from Jan. 1 to 25. Esperon said the number of vessels reached 146 in July 2019.
He described these vessels as “fishing boats that do not do a lot of fishing.”
“So what is that? They simply occupy space,” he said.
While the vessels are suspicious because “they are capable of bringing with them some defense or offensive weapons,” he said that based on observations, the vessels have no mounted guns.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, who was present in the executive session on the West Philippine Sea, declined to give details of reports discussed during the briefing.
“The claimants in the West Philippine Sea are still very much aggressive, especially China in the territories they already occupy. They are very much active in their presence through their coast guard, navy and the use of fishing vessels,” he said.
He, too, agreed that the Chinese fishing boats are part of militia. “It’s being confirmed by several other reports that these vessels are Chinese militias doing not just fishing but intelligence gathering for China. Certainly, we have to be aware,” he said.