Chinese fishing boats set sail for the South China Sea, seen here on August 16, 2020.
VCG | Visual China Group | Getty images
The Philippines recently dramatically stepped up their patrols in the South China Sea and, according to ship tracking data, came into closer contact with the China Coast Guard.
Between March 1 and May 25, 13 law enforcement or military vessels from the Philippines visited the waters around the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal at least 57 times, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said this week.
“This was a significant increase from the past 10 months … when 3 ships were tracked that made a total of 7 visits to disputed sites,” the report said. It pointed out that this boost in patrols “goes beyond anything seen in recent years” from the Philippines.
The South China Sea has been a regional focal point in Asia, with territorial disputes between some countries and China. The Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam are among the countries claiming parts of the waterway, but China sees much of the area – including the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal – as part of its territory.
The AMTI, which is part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out that the location of patrols across the Philippines has also changed.
Before March, ships from the Philippines were traveling “almost exclusively” to and from the country’s largest outpost in the Spratlys, Thitu Island.
But recent patrols include Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by the Philippines but patrolled daily by China, Whitsun Reef, where the recent militia swarm was detected, the unoccupied Sabina Shoal at Second Thomas, and Scarborough Shoal, where China has a permanent presence. since 2012, ”said AMTI.
The report reviewed tracking data from commercial provider Marine Traffic and images from satellite companies Maxar and Planet Labs.
‘Outsized and outgunned’
AMTI outlined an incident in May when Chinese coastguard ships chased or chased Philippines coastguard ships that are “almost always oversized and outgunned.”
On May 19, the Philippines sent four ships to disputed territorial seas, but were met by two Chinese ships. At least one Philippine ship was “chased” by the Chinese, it said.
One of the Chinese coastguard ships began to chase the Philippine ship MCS 3005 as it sailed around one side of Scarborough.
The other Chinese ship chased a separate Philippine ship, the Habagat, across the road before “peeling off” to a third and larger, another Philippine ship named Gabriela Silang, AMTI said.
The Philippines appears determined, but the country’s patrols “pale” by the intensity of the “near-permanent presence of the Coast Guard and militia,” the report said.
Manila ships embark on “staggered trips” and spend one to two days in disputed locations.
“Chinese ships, on the other hand, operate as sentries, remain in targeted positions for weeks at a time and usually do not depart until a replacement has arrived to continue the watch,” AMTI said.
Whether the Philippines will continue the current pace of patrol and how China might respond is unclear, the report said. “But while Manila’s combination of more public outcry and increased presence appears to have had some success in dispatching Chinese ships at Whitsun Reef and Sabina Shoal, it has not affected the total number of Chinese ships operating in disputed waters.”
Manila “is drawing more attention and international condemnation to China’s activities, especially on the militia front,” said AMTI.