West Philippine Sea

Despite protests, Chinese vessels linger in West Philippine Sea

Sofia Tomacruz
Despite protests, Chinese vessels linger in West Philippine Sea

CHINESE VESSELS. Satellite images show Chinese vessels at Union Banks on October 17, 2021.

AMTI-CSIS and Planet Labs

'This is evidence of the Chinese militia's shell game in the Spratly Islands,' says the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies

While several countries called out China’s moves to swarm Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea back in March, new analysis by a Washington-based think tank shows Beijing’s vessels continue to linger in Philippine waters.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (AMTI-CSIS) in the United States documented this trend in a report released Saturday, October 23, Manila time, with satellite imagery showing Chinese militia ships often moving to and from reefs.

“This is evidence of the Chinese militia’s shell game in the Spratly Islands. 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,” AMTI-CSIS said. 

The lingering presence of China’s ships in Philippine waters comes even after the Department of Foreign Affairs filed at least 211 notes verbales against Beijing – at least 153 of which were filed in 2021 alone.

Then and now

AMTI-CSIS observed the movement of Chinese ships on at least two occasions. First, Chinese militia vessels gathered at Iroquois Reef in April, after dispersing from Julian Felipe Reef in early 2021.

At the time, the Philippines demanded that China withdraw its vessels, summoned Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, and filed daily diplomatic protests over the continued presence of hundreds of Beijing’s ships in Julian Felipe Reef.

The episode saw tensions flare and prompted a renewed push from the Philippines to publicly call out China’s aggressive behavior in the area, with other countries following suit.

“Satellite imagery from Planet Labs show Chinese boats first arriving at Iroquois Reef in mid-April, just after the 200 massed at Whitsun Reef dispersed,” AMTI-CSIS said.

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The think tank said Chinese ships, ranging in size from 40 to 50 meters, were first visible through imagery as early as April 9. In June, the ships numbered at about five in the area, although in mid-June their numbers grew to 15, and later to around 30 in late July. The figure then fell to 15 in August and climbed to 30 again in late September. 

AMTI-CSIS noted that no automatic identification system or AIS signals were detected from ships in Iroquois Reef during that period – “unsurprising” since the swarm of ships in Julian Felipe Reef around March showed that “most Chinese militia vessels are equipped with weak, Class-B AIS transceivers that are rarely detected by satellite.”

In late September, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. filed another protest against the continued presence of China’s vessels near the vicinity of Iroquois Reef, some 125 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan. 

AMTI-CSIS noted that recent imagery showed the number of Chinese ships in the area have decreased since then, “but it also suggests that many of those vessels likely headed back to Union Banks, where numbers are now reaching the levels seen in March.”

This bolsters earlier findings of the Philippines’ National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, which had reported in late March that, a month since Chinese vessels were first spotted in Julian Felipe Reef, the ships had spread out over various reefs.

“As was apparent in the aftermath of the mass deployment at Whitsun Reef, Chinese vessels leaving one contested area most often end up at another,” AMTI-CSIS said.

Still present

More recently, AMTI-CSIS reported that the number of Chinese ships spotted in Union Banks has been rising over the past three months.

In early August, satellite imagery showed “only an average of 40 vessels visible in the northern half of Union Banks, which includes Whitsun Reef.” But in September, “over 100 boats were visible.” And on October 17, “well over 150 ships can be seen.”

AMTI-CSIS said some ships were fishing boats or from the Vietnam Coast Guard, but the “vast majority” were Chinese vessels at least 50 meters long.

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Retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio earlier stressed that while countries can express the right to navigation, they cannot park hundreds of vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Carpio had also urged the Philippine government to go beyond diplomatic protests by filing a case before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

In the same way the landmark 2016 Hague ruling affirmed the Philippines’ rights in the West Philippine Sea, again taking the legal route to challenge China’s actions would benefit the Philippines, said Carpio.

“We are harnessing world opinion here if we use the rule of law and that is our strength because we know we have the law on our side. We should use it to the hilt,” he earlier said. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.