Chinese patrols in PH waters getting brazen despite pandemic, says US think tank
MANILA, Philippines—The COVID-19 pandemic did not stop or slow China’s deployment of coast guard ships “around symbolically important features” in the West Philippine Sea, including those lying inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) like Panatag (Scarborough) and Ayungin (Second Thomas) shoals.
An analysis of data from automatic identification systems (AIS), which track vessel position at sea, gathered by the website MarineTraffic showed that China was apparently intending to make its presence felt in these reefs, according to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
From Dec. 1, 2019 to Nov. 30, 2020, the China Coast Guard not only kept a “persistent presence” in Ayungin Shoal, Panatag Shoal and Luconia Shoal, but appeared to have “increased the frequency of patrols” during the pandemic, AMTI said.
For 287 of the last 366 days, at least one and often two China Coast Guard (CCG) ships broadcast from Panatag Shoal, it said. This was a “substantial increase” from 162 days in 2019, said AMTI.
CCG ships patrolled Ayungin Shoal for 232 days and 279 days in Luconia.
“That CCG vessels so frequently broadcast AIS from these reefs, which are not physically occupied by China, suggests that they want to be seen signalling China’s claims,” AMTI said.
The AIS is a real-time tracking system that transmits a ship’s position so its presence would be known.
Chinese vessels patrolling Ayungin Shoal “often made loops” around Hasa-Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal, a submerged geological feature, which is located some 60 nautical miles of Palawan, well within the Philippines’ EEZ. AMTI said 11 Chinese fishermen had been arrested for poaching in the area in 2014.
Chinese vessels deployed around Luconia “occasionally challenged” Malaysian oil and gas exploration activities.
AMTI also reported the “noteworthy addition to the regular CCG patrol route” of Vanguard Bank off Vietnam’s southeast coast, site of the months-long standoff between Vietnam and China over oil and gas drilling in 2019.
The number of CCG ships in the contested areas could be “likely an undercount” as many coast guard ships conceal their presence by not broadcasting their AIS signals.
AMTI said one instance when a Chinese vessel muted its broadcast was last May 14 when AIS data indicated there were no vessels around Scarborough but “high-resolution satellite image” revealed two Zhaoyu-class patrol vessels in the area.
Analysts have been saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has become a smokescreen for China’s aggressive enforcement of its claim to own nearly the entire South China Sea, including Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea.
Southeast Asian claimants, however, often refrain from sending law enforcement or naval vessels to confront Chinese patrols.
“This suggests that China is successfully normalizing its presence,” AMTI said.
Aside from frequent CCG patrols and intimidation of fishing boats, government vessels, oil and gas rigs of other countries, China has upped its game in the South China Sea this year by creating two new administrative districts, naming all geographical features as if to claim ownership, launching two new research centers, among others.
The Philippines, China, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways.
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