What protest? China militia vessels return to reef inside PH EEZ
MANILA, Philippines—Chinese militia vessels, ignoring protests filed by the Philippine government, have returned to Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea, where hundreds of Chinese ships gathered earlier this year.
Dozens of Chinese ships were spotted near the reef on Monday (Nov. 1) and preceding days, said US-funded news site Radio Free Asia, citing commercial satellite images from Planet Labs.
Julian Felipe Reef is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. It is part of Pagkakaisa (Union) Banks in the South China Sea, which is also being claimed by China and Vietnam.
Philippine patrols also saw dozens of ships last October, according to government data obtained by Inquirer.net. There were 151 vessels seen spread in Pagkakaisa Banks from Oct. 10 to 16, then down to 35 vessels the following week.
Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently said it has observed a rising number of Chinese vessels in the area in the past three months.
In early August, satellite imagery showed an average of 40 vessels in the northern half of Union Banks, which includes Whitsun Reef. By September, over 100 boats could be spotted. On October 17, “well over 150 ships can be seen.”
“In comparison to the massing at Whitsun Reef in March, these vessels are spread more evenly throughout the northern half of Union Banks, with relatively few at Whitsun itself,” AMTI said.
Some of the ships were Vietnamese coastguard and fishing boats, but “vast majority” were Chinese vessels at least 50 meters in length, it added.
The US think tank said in the same report that Chinese vessels continued to linger in Philippine waters despite patrols by claimants or international outcry. The vessels only transfer from one feature to another but linger in the area.
“This is evidence of the Chinese militia’s shell game in the Spratlys Islands,” AMTI said.
“When international outcry or patrols by other claimants convince them to leave a disputed feature, they disperse to nearby reefs for a time. But their overall numbers in the Spratlys remain consistent,” the AMTI said.
In late March, the Philippines flagged over 200 Chinese militia vessels swarming Julian Felipe Reef, prompting the Philippine armed forces to increase maritime patrols and the Philippine foreign affairs department to repeatedly file diplomatic protests.
China insisted the ships were taking shelter from rough seas but this was belied by good weather in the area. At one point, the Philippine government summoned the Chinese ambassador.
A total of 153 out of 211 diplomatic protests by the Philippines in the last five years were filed in 2021 alone, according to a recent statement of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Chinese militia pose as fishing vessels, but are not actually engaged in fishing. Militias are being used to aggressively enforce China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, without sparking overt war. Formally, they are part of China’s armed forces.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea through its nine-dash line invention but the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled against it.
President Rodrigo Duterte has downplayed China’s aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea following his foreign policy pivot and tight embrace of China in exchange supposedly for massive investments and loans which have yet to materialize barely a year left in Duterte’s term which ends after the elections in May 2022.
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