PH Coast Guard notes fewer, more scattered Sino vessels
Chinese vessels continue to loiter in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) but are now fewer in number, according to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) which has recently publicized China’s incursion as part of the new administration’s move to counter the Asian superpower’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
PCG Commodore Jay Tarriela, adviser to the PCG commandant for maritime security and the coast guard spokesperson for the WPS, said they noted a decrease in the number of suspected Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels observed around Pag-asa—from 42 last week to 15 on Thursday, March 9.
The PCG on Thursday flew over Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, Ayungin (Second Thomas) and Escoda (Sabina) Shoals—all in the WPS, waters within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—where a significant number of Chinese vessels had been previously observed and reported.
READ: AFP tells China to restrain forces in the West Philippine Sea
This aerial patrol is called a “maritime domain awareness” (MDA) flight that is intended to collect information and intelligence about any vessel in Philippine waters.
It found that a People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Jiangdao-class warship and a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel with bow number 5203 continued to loiter within Pag-asa’s 22-km territorial sea.
The PCG also observed that CCG vessel 5304 maintained its presence roughly 11 km from the Philippine Navy’s derelict BRP Sierra Madre which was deliberately grounded at Ayungin in 1999 to mark the country’s claim on the shoal and to serve as an outpost.
READ: Chinese militia vessels in WPS show Beijing’s endless blatant disregard of PH EEZ
Last month, a CCG ship about 20 km from the shoal used a military-grade laser light against a PCG vessel that was supporting a resupply mission to the outpost, according to Tarriela.
That was the latest major maritime incident between the Philippines and China.
It sparked a fresh diplomatic row and prompted President Marcos to take the unusual step of confronting the Chinese ambassador to Manila.Mr. Marcos has insisted that he will not let China trample on the country’s maritime rights—in contrast to his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte who was reluctant to criticize Beijing.
READ: China harasses Philippine Coast Guard vessel with laser
At Escoda, the PCG monitored a decrease in the number of CMM vessels from 26 two weeks earlier to 17 on Thursday.
While fewer Chinese vessel seen in Philippine waters may seem to indicate an effort by the Chinese to deescalate tension, “looks can be deceiving,” according to an international maritime expert.
“Where did they all go? The answer is most are probably still in the area … they’ve just made themselves less visible,” said retired US Air Force Col. Raymond Powell in a series of tweets on Friday.
He said that was particularly the case of the more than 40 CMM vessels which were recently near Pag-asa that China had scattered around the area to make them less noticeable from the air.
Still, radio challenges
“Those we can see on AIS (automatic identification system) don’t seem to have gone far—and don’t seem intent on abandoning Pag-asa. They’ll be back,” said Powell, who now leads Project Myoushu (South China Sea) at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University.
During Thursday’s MDA flight, the PCG received a total of seven radio challenges from the CCG: four while over Pag-asa territorial sea, and three while over the vicinity of Ayungin.
A Chinese voice issued a stern command over the radio: “Leave immediately.”
The order came from a radio operator on a CCG vessel 1,000 meters below—one of dozens of ships seen prowling the waters.
READ: ‘Welcome to China’ greets PCG aircraft over Ayungin
Beijing claims sovereignty over nearly all of South China Sea, including the WPS, ignoring a 2016 international ruling that its claims have no legal or historical basis.
In the past decade, it has ripped up thousands of hectares of reef in the archipelago to create artificial islands with runways, ports and radar systems.
To assert its claims, hundreds of CCG and other vessels patrol the waters, swarming reefs, harassing and attacking fishing and other boats.
They also try to expel non-Chinese planes from the airspace overhead.
READ: PH wins arbitration case over South China Sea
“You have entered (the water around) a Chinese reef and constituted a security threat. To avoid misunderstanding, leave immediately,” the Chinese radio operator said, in one of the messages issued in Chinese and English to the PCG plane.
The PCG pilot responded that they were flying within Philippine territory.
Tarriela said a complete report on the MDA flight would be submitted to the National Task Force on the WPS for review and analysis.
READ: PCG: Chinese militia vessels near Pag-asa island not responding to challenges
The PCG is also coordinating its patrols with the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Area Task Force-West.
“The PCG joins AFP-Wescom in reiterating that current efforts of our civilian and uniformed services promote adherence to an international rules-based order and strengthen established bilateral and multilateral mechanisms to avoid conflict and maintain peace and stability in the West Philippine Sea and in the South China Sea,” Tarriela said.
“Notwithstanding incidents of harassment, coercion and provocations challenging our legitimate entitlements as articulated by Unclos and upheld in the 2016 Arbitral Award, PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu assures the Filipino public that your PCG will remain steadfast in advancing the national interest,” he added.
When the Chinese vessels were spotted two weeks earlier, the PCG said the Department of Foreign Affairs would decide whether to file fresh diplomatic protests against the continued encroachments into the WPS by Chinese vessels.
“We can just submit facts and evidence and it’s always up to them how they’re going to utilize those documents and proof that we submitted,” he said.
READ: PH files 461 diplomatic protests vs China since 2016, says DFA
But despite the support it is getting from the general public and even some politicians, Tarriela called on lawmakers to fund the modernization of the PCG to further equip and expand its fledgling fleet.
According to Tarriela, the PCG only has three patrol vessels—BRP Gabriela Silang, and the sister ships BRP Teresa Magbanua and BRP Melchora Aquino. These are most suitable to long-duration patrol operations in the WPS, he said.
In January, Abu said the PCG plans to acquire five more 97-meter patrol vessels from Japan as it sought to beef up its presence in the WPS.
—WITH A REPORT FROM AFP
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.