3 China war vessels park at Panganiban Reef inside PH EEZ
MANILA, Philippines—Three stealth missile fast attack craft of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy were spotted parked at Panganiban Reef in the West Philippine Sea, a sign of China’s continued expansion of its man-made island there into a military base to enforce its invalidated claim to ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea.
Panganiban Reef—internationally known as Mischief Reef—is inside the Philippines’ 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. Waters within this zone are known locally as West Philippine Sea.
The Chinese war vessels were Type 022 wave-piercing catamarans equipped with missile launchers and capable of top speeds of 38 knots (about 70 km per hour) and are considered to be the Chinese Navy’s new generation stealth missile fast attack craft. These Houbei-class vessels feature high-speed, wave-piercing catamaran hull design.
The fast attack crafts were spotted along with a Dayun-class supply ship docked inside Panganiban Reef by a Philippine maritime patrol last Monday (March 29), according to a government report seen by INQUIRER.net.
Chinese state mouthpiece Global Times has described the Type 022 as “fast, flexible, stealthy and powerful,” making it suitable for coastal defense missions against medium to large size ships.
“Military observers used to think the Type 022 was only suitable for coastal defense, but the PLA is seemingly exploring its potential to operate beyond that,” the Chinese mouthpiece said.
It was unclear if it was the first reported presence of the 140-ft. vessels on Panganiban Reef, one of China’s largest artificial islands in the Spratly Islands. It could not also be determined how long the boats had been there.
Type 022 vessels participated in Chinese maritime exercises in the South China Sea in 2020, where it conducted “a real combat scenario drill, with the catamarans training in comprehensive attack and defense, air defense and anti-terrorism,” according to Global Times.
Maritime expert Dr. Jay Batongbacal said the presence of these vessels add defensive and offensive naval capabilities to the Chinese base on top of anti-air and anti-ship missile batteries already installed by China there.
Missile boats, he said, can be used to threaten and control ships passing around the Spratlys.
“Houbei class missile boats are smaller fast attack craft designed for nearshore/ coastal operations and attacking other ships,” Batongbacal told INQUIRER.net.
Since these boats were not designed for very long-distance operations, he said the vessels were likely using the Panganiban Reef as a forward operating base.
“I would consider it as another form of escalation and part of the continuing expansion of the Mischief Reef’s offensive, not just defensive capabilities,” Batongbacal said.
A 2016 international arbitral ruling in The Hague said Panganiban Reef belonged to the Philippines. Part of the ruling said the reef, located some 232 km from Palawan province, formed part of the Philippines’ EEZ and continental shelf. The ruling said China violated Philippine sovereignty by building an island in the area, which it began occupying in 1995.
Besides Panganiban, Beijing has also transformed Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes) reefs into artificial islands.
China is also using its maritime militia. posing as fishing vessels, to assert ownership of the West Philippine Sea. There are more than 200 Chinese ships currently spread out all over the West Philippine Sea, according to recent maritime patrols.
The Philippine government has called on China to withdraw these ships and increased patrols in the area.
The National Task Force-West Philippine Sea said in a recent statement that it stood by “its observation that these so-called fishing vessels are maritime militia.”
“Their buildup and massing formation from Julian Felipe Reef to other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group is hazardous to navigation and safety of life at sea,” the task force said.
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