MANILA, Philippines – Chinese fishing vessels do more than just fish in the West Philippine Sea, but are part of China’s strategy to control the resource-rich waters and deny Filipinos access to their exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the Department of National Defense (DND) said in a report.
“Apparently, China has been utilizing fishing vessels to discreetly conduct surveillance, search and rescue operations as well as provide possible assistance to [Chinese] law enforcement agencies,” said the report signed by DND Undersecretary Cardozo Luna, submitted on September 13 to Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate, who earlier requested the DND for a report on its modernization program and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters.
“There is high possibility that Beijing will continue the deployment of these vessels, which could be used for asymmetric warfare of sea control and denial, such as swarming tactics and ramming of other claimants’ vessels in the area, enabling it to make advancements in the maritime region without causing tension in the area,” the report added.
International reports have long stated that China uses fishing crews onboard trawlers as maritime militia, a way to push its territorial claims without using military assets to avoid overt warfare.
Chinese fishing vessels that are “alleged Chinese maritime militia assets” are frequently spotted “apparently providing support to Chinese naval and coast guard operations” the West Philippine Sea, the report said, adding that a total of 322 such vessels with different bow numbers were monitored in the first half of 2019. (READ: The Sinking of Gem-Ver)
Of that number, 300 were sighted around Pag-asa Island, a natural island in the Kalayaan or Spratlys group controlled and occupied by the Philippines with a population of about 200, many of whom are civilians.
President Rodrigo Duterte has said that he can't stop the Chinese from fishing in Philippine waters due to a supposed verbal agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping to allow fishing rights for their peoples.
Resupply mission blocked by China Coast Guard
According to DND, China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels are “regularly deployed” to the West Philippine Sea, particularly Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Pag-asa Island, and Ayungin Shoal, where the intentionally grounded Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre serves as a permanent outpost.
On May 14, a CCG ship with bow number 3305 blocked the route of 3 Philippine civilian vessels that were carrying supplies for the crew stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre.
The CCG ship came as close as 1,600 yards or about 1.5 kms of the Philippine vessels, the DND report stated.
Numerous vessels from other countries with sovereignty claims in the West Philippine Sea were also monitored, but they were far outnumbered by those from China.
In 2018, of 560 “naval and maritime assets” of these countries observed in the West Philippine Sea and the broader South China Sea, 434 were Chinese, many of them believed to be its maritime militia.
Chinese warships, research vessels
The DND report said 25 vessels of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy were monitored in the West Philippine Sea from January to August 2019.
They included an intelligence ship, a cable layer, amphibious landing platform docks, 6 corvettes, 7 frigates, 4 destroyers, and an aircraft carrier – the Liaoning (CV-16).
The DND report noted an “emerging trend” of Chinese warships passing through the Sulu-Celebes Sea area, particularly in Balabac and Sibutu straits, as earlier piecemeal reports from security officials revealed.
Sightings of Chinese warships in these areas were recorded on February 7, June 2, June 17, July 3, July 4, and August 4.
The Liaonong transited these areas “on several occasions,” the report said, contrary to earlier denials by security officials.
The DND also named 15 Chinese research vessels sighted in Philippine waters.
In August, 3 such vessels were spotted in different parts of the Philippines, not just in the West Philippine Sea, confirming earlier reports.
Taiwanese, Vietnamese vessels
The DND report said Taiwanese and Vietnamese vessels were also spotted in Philippine seas.
Taiwanese vessels were “persistently monitored” east of the Batanes Islands and in the extended continental shelf of the Philippine (Benham) Rise. Some were also spotted within the Philippine EEZ.
Vietnamese fishing vessels have been spotted regularly in Vietnam-occupied areas of the South China Sea, the report said, an escalation from when they were only spotted near their “bigger features” in previous years.
Research vessels bearing the flags of the US, Germany, Japan, Indonesia, the UK, Russia, Panama, the Bahamas, the Marshall Islands, and Taiwan were also monitored in Philippine waters in the first half of 2019. The DND report did not say whether these were coordinated with Philippine authorities.
The government has filed several diplomatic protests with China this year over its vessels’ unauthorized activities in Philippine waters.
On June 9, a Chinese trawler rammed a Philippine fishing boat anchored at Recto Bank near Palawan. It abandoned the 22 Filipino crew even after their boat, Gem-Ver, foundered.
The Filipino fishermen survived with help from a Vietnamese fishing crew.
Although the owner of the Chinese trawler issued an apology months after the incident, the Philippine government has yet to exact accountability and reparation from the Chinese government.
In August, the leader of the Federated Fisherfolk Association of Masinloc, Zambales, told Rappler that the volume of their catch has declined by 80% from 2012 to 2019, ever since the CCG restricted their access to Panatag Shoal. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.