MANILA, Philippines – A United States-based think tank said increased patrols by the China Coast Guard (CCG) in the South China Sea amounted to a near-daily presence around key features in the disputed waterway last year.
The Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), Luconia Shoals, Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), Vanguard Bank, and Thitu Island (Pag-asa Island) were among the five areas most frequented by Chinese ships in 2022, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (AMTI-CSIS) in Washington, DC.
Three of these features – Ayungin Shoal, Scarborough Shoal, and Pag-asa Island – are in the West Philippine Sea.
In a report released Tuesday night, January 31 (Manila time), the AMTI-CSIS said it documented this trend using automatic identification system (AIS) data from commercial provider MarineTraffic.
“China’s coast guard presence in the South China Sea is more robust than ever,” AMTI said, adding the number of days that CCH ship patrolled the five features “increased across the board.”
At Ayungin Shoal, or Second Thomas Shoal, CCG patrols grew to cover 279 days in 2022 from 232 in 2020. A Philippine Navy ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, remains perched on a portion of the shoal and serves as an outpost for the Philippines after it deliberately ran aground in 1999. The shoal lies 105 nautical miles west of Palawan.
Around Scarborough Shoal, CCG patrols increased from 287 days to 344 days. AMTI likewise noted the multiple CCG vessels were often present simultaneously.
Near Pag-asa Island, meanwhile, CCG vessels were seen 208 days out of the year. No data was collected on the area in previous analyses.
The striking numbers, though almost at a daily presence, were likely to be an undercount, AMTI said, considering AIS data was often incomplete.
AMTI also pointed out that some CCG vessels’ AIS transceivers may be disabled, remain undetected on commercial monitoring platforms, or transmitted incomplete or erroneous data.
Scarborough Shoal lies some 120 nautical miles west of Zambales, though Filipino fishermen have reported increasing difficulty accessing the shoal with Chinese ships often barring their entry.
The 2016 arbitral award ruled that the shoal was a common fishing ground. Pending a resolution of sovereignty disputes, no country is entitled to exclusive possession of the shoal, though the Philippines considers it a part of its territory.
At Vanguard Bank, a major Vietnamese oil and gas development sites, CCG patrols “more than doubled” from 142 days in 2020 to 310 days in 2022. The site has been witness to multiple standoffs between Chinese and Vietnamese ships.
Chinese patrols at Luconia Shoals, an area near Malaysian oil and gas operations, also grew from 279 days to 316 days.
China asserting control
What might an increase in Chinese patrols mean for the Maritime dispute?
The think tank said that a near-daily presence established by patrols, coupled with the presence of its maritime militia, showed China’s “determination to assert control over the vast maritime zone within its claimed nine-dash line.”
In 2022 alone, the Philippines documented several incidents where Chinese ships harassed and shadowed Philippine vessels. This included China’s efforts to block resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal and its shadowing of a survey vessel last April.
In November 2022, the Philippine government also protested China’s seizure of rocket debris from Philippine sailors when it cut a tow line of Philippine vessel retrieving the objects near Pag-asa island.
“As Southeast Asian claimants continue to operate in the Spratly Islands in 2023, the constant presence of China’s coast guard and maritime militia makes future confrontations all but inevitable,” AMTI said.
Under the Marcos administration, as of January 3, 2023, the Department of Foreign Affairs has filed at least 68 notes verbales against China over incidents in the West Philippine Sea. – Rappler.com
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