(Editor’s note: Whitsun Reef is referred to Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines.)
China has kept up a sustained presence around a disputed South China Sea reef for two years, according to a Washington-based think tank – despite Beijing’s claims that its vessels were only sheltering in the area.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which tracked the vessels’ automatic identification system broadcasts, also identified 14 of the Chinese ships captured in photos and videos taken by Philippine coastguard patrols at Whitsun Reef.
Whitsun is a V-shaped reef in a shallow coral region of the resource-rich Spratly Islands and is now at the centre of a deepening maritime row between Beijing and Manila.
According to AMTI, the 14 ships, all from southern China’s Guangdong province, were first tracked patrolling Union Banks, which includes Whitsun Reef, in early 2019 and nine of them have broadcast AIS from Whitsun several times.
“As with other known militia deployments, the behaviour of these vessels defies commercial explanation. Most have remained in the area for weeks, or even months, riding at anchor in clusters without engaging in any fishing activity,” AMTI said in a report on Wednesday.
“Many are trawlers which, by definition, must move to fish. And blue skies have debunked the initial excuse from the Chinese embassy in Manila that they were riding out a storm.”
Tension between China and the Philippines has intensified in recent months after Manila reported more than 200 Chinese vessels near Whitsun Reef in the disputed South China Sea in early March and 44 ships from the Chinese “maritime militia” were still there despite the good weather earlier this month.
Beijing insisted that at the time these ships were civilian fishing boats taking shelter from bad weather and that they had “no plans” to stay there permanently, but the Philippine government has asked Beijing to withdraw the boats. Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin warned that Manila would lodge diplomatic protests every day until “the last one’s gone, like it should be by now if it’s really fishing”.
The presence of the Chinese vessels deepens concern over whether Beijing is deploying maritime militia – fishing vessels in paramilitary service as required by Chinese law – to gain control over the contested waters.
On Monday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte broke his silence over the Whitsun dispute and said he was “not so much interested” in fishing but was prepared to send the military to “stake a claim” over oil and mineral resources in the South China Sea, even though “it will be bloody”.
In the report, AMTI identified five out of the six Chinese vessels tied together at Whitsun Reef as members of the Yuemaobinyu fleet registered in the Bohe harbour in Maoming, Guangdong province.
The Yuemaobinyu fleet caught international attention in 2019 when one of its boats, Yuemaobinyu 42212, rammed and sank a Philippine boat at Reed Bank, another disputed area in the South China Sea. The incident sparked demonstrations in Manila until Beijing gave assurances that the Chinese captain, who later issued an apology, would compensate the Philippines for the loss of the ship.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan all have claims over the entire Union Banks, which includes Whitsun Reef that falls in the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone in the Spratly Islands and is about 320km (200 miles) west of the Philippine province of Palawan.
Citing satellite imagery from Planet Labs, AMTI said Chinese vessels appeared to frequently bounce between Whitsun and other parts of Union Banks, such as the unoccupied Kennan Reef next to the Chinese base at Hughes.
“The number of vessels at Whitsun has fluctuated over this period, but never entirely disappeared,” the report said, citing an incomplete count between February of last year and April 11, which showed a peak in November when a total of 196 vessels were visible at Union Banks, including 129 at Whitsun Reef.
When the Philippine coastguard documented more than 200 vessels at Whitsun in early March, it also included some Chinese and Vietnamese coastguard and navy vessels as well as Vietnamese fishing boats.
“But the vast majority are Chinese fishing vessels 50 metres or more in length, which distinguishes them from their smaller Vietnamese counterparts,” it said.