MANILA – The deployment of Chinese militia boats near Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island continued to surge this year, this time accompanied by Chinese government vessels, a US-based thinktank said in a report published Thursday.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), the Philippine military monitored 136 unique Chinese vessels near the island in the first 2 months of 2020.
"A February 13 image from Maxar captured nearly 40 militia ships, this time accompanied by the Xiang Yang Hong 9-class China Coast Guard 5401," AMTI said.
AMTI said the same image also showed 4 stationary vessels, with 3 leashed together at the western edge of the lagoon.
"The ships, which do not appear to be trawlers like most others in the flotilla, arrived in this position by January 16 and did not leave until at least February 25. This appears to be the first time that individual vessels have stayed in one place for so long, though what they were doing for those six weeks is unclear, the report said.
Constructions and repairs have been ongoing in the Philippine-occupied island in the West Philippine Sea. But the AMTI said delays in upgrades could be due to the presence of Chinese militia.
"The Philippines has slowly made progress on its upgrade work at Thitu after repeated delays. Officials in Manila have consistently blamed the delays on bad weather, but it seems likely that the constant Chinese militia presence has played a role," AMTI said.
In April 2019, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said weather and logistics issues have temporarily halted construction to improve the facilities on the island. The military denied that the halt in construction was due to the Chinese ships monitored in the area.
The report added that the construction on the island probably provoked the initial Chinese militia deployment in December 2018.
Between Dec. 2, 2018 and March 2, 2020, AMTI said satellite imagery from PlanetLabs, which counted vessels inside the 32 square nautical mile area covering the reefs and sandbars to the west of the island where the militia fleet congregates, revealed an average of 18 Chinese ships around the island each day.
"These counts indicate the minimum number of Chinese ships present on a given day. Many vessels likely went uncounted because they were under cloud cover or outside the frame of the images," it explained.
It cited another higher-resolution imagery collected by Maxar on Dec. 18, 2019 which revealed 88 Chinese vessels near the island. Most of these vessels were trawlers and have shown no proof that lights were used for night fishing.
"All of this is consistent with the behavior of the fleet since December 2018—the 'fishing' ships around Thitu are engaged in surveillance and harassment, not fishing," AMTI said.
When their number spikes, AMTI said these boats were accompanied by government vessel Shuwu-class China Coast Guard 5103, the same ship then known as China Marine Surveillance 84 that participated in the 2012 standoff with Philippine vessels at Scarborough Shoal.
The construction on the island is slowly progressing which aims to improve the lives of Pag-Asa's civilian community and make resupply easier, AMTI said.
"How the Chinese militia would respond, and whether they will continue to menace Thitu once the repairs are complete, are open questions," the US-based thinktank said.