US think tank sees ‘dramatic’ rise in PH patrols in West Philippine Sea
MANILA, Philippines—Philippine sovereign patrols in the West Philippine Sea increased dramatically after more than 200 China vessels swarmed Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef last March.
American think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, confirmed that the Philippines escalated its presence in the West Philippine Sea as Beijing continued to trash calls for the withdrawal of China ships from Philippine waters.
The Philippines bolstered its patrols in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) shortly after China assembled hundreds of militia vessels at Julian Felipe Reef, which is also inside Philippine EEZ.
The China vessels dispersed after the Philippines filed a series of diplomatic protests but refused to leave Philippine waters and just moved to other areas of the West Philippine Sea.
AMTI said it viewed the Philippines’ increased presence as a signal that Manila was determined to assert its rights over the West Philippine Sea. The think tank, however, said the Philippine naval force deployed to the area could not maintain constant presence unlike China which had kept a near-permanent presence, through its coast guard and militia, in Philippine waters.
The Philippines has drawn greater attention and international condemnation of China’s territory-grabbing campaign, through its militia vessels, after the amassing of China ships at Julian Felipe Reef had been publicized, according to AMTI.
From March 1 to May 25, 2021, AMTI said it monitored 13 Philippine law enforcement or military vessels making at least 57 trips around the Spratly Islands and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a geographical feature in the West Philippine Sea which had already been controlled by China.
AMTI said the number of Philippine patrols was a “substantial increase” from the previous 10 months, or from May 2020 to February 2021, when just 3 Philippine vessels were tracked making a total of only 7 trips to the West Philippine Sea.
AMTI said it observed, through ship trackers and satellite images, that the Philippines did not only raise the frequency of its patrols but also their locations.
Before March 2021, according to AMTI, Philippine government vessels were almost exclusively sailing directly to and from Thitu Island, the Philippines’ largest outpost in the Kalayaan Island Group, which now hosts a Philippine municipality.
As patrols increased, the Philippines also deployed its government assets more frequently to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, where the Philippine Navy maintains a presence through BRP Sierra Madre, a tank landing ship deliberately grounded there in 1999, and also Julian Felipe Reef, Sabina Shoal and Panatag Shoal.
Increased Philippine patrols also led to encounters with China coast guard and militia vessels, AMTI said.
Last May 19, the Philippines sent four vessels—BRP Gabriela Silang, BRP Sindangan, BRP Habagat and MCS 3005—to Panatag Shoal, which had been stolen and now occupied by China.
“On that occasion, the Philippine vessels sailed directly to within 10 nautical miles of the shoal—inside its contested territorial sea—where they were met by the CCG 3301 and 3102,” AMTI said in its report, referring to China coast guard ships.
“The former began trailing the MCS 3005 as it circled around one side of Scarborough and the latter pursued the Habagat closely on the other before peeling off toward the larger Gabriela Silang,” AMTI said.
But AMTI said it observed that Philippine government vessels were “almost always outsized and outgunned by their Chinese counterparts.”
“A limited number of PCG (Philippine Coast Guard) and BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) vessels have the endurance to travel safely to the Spratlys and Scarborough,” it said.
“These few Philippine ships have embarked on staggered tours across the South China Sea every couple of weeks since March, spending only one or two days at contested features before moving on,” it added.
China ships, meanwhile, stay in Philippine waters for weeks at a time and usually leave once replacements arrive, AMTI said. It added that despite the Philippines’ increased presence and a barrage of diplomatic protests, China showed no sign of leaving the Philippines’ EEZ anytime soon.
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