MANILA (UPDATE) - The Chinese Coast Guard increased its frequency of patrols in Scarborough Shoal and other areas in the disputed South China Sea amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a US-based think tank said in a report published Friday.
At least 1 CCG vessel or "often 2" broadcasted from Scarborough Shoal on 287 of the last 366 days versus 162 days the previous year, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative-Center for Strategic and International Studies (AMTI-CSIS).
It added that ships patrolling Second Thomas Shoal "often made loops" around Half-Moon Shoal, some 60 nautical miles off Palawan where Philippine authorities arrested 11 Chinese nationals for poaching in 2014.
"AIS (Automatic Identification System) data shows a remarkably consistent level of CCG presence at Scarborough, Second Thomas, Luconia, and Vanguard. But even this is likely an undercount, as many coastguard ships still do not broadcast AIS signals or do so infrequently," the report said.
The AMTI cited data from May 14, when AIS did not detect any vessel at Scarborough shoal but high-resolution satellite image shows two Zhaoyu-class patrol vessels.
"Southeast Asian claimants largely refrain from deploying law enforcement or naval vessels to contest these routine patrols. This suggests that China is successfully normalizing its presence," it said.
The report also noted that a patrol route in Vanguard Bank off Vietnam's southeast coast was added since July.
"The submerged bank is near the site of a months-long standoff between China and Vietnam over oil and gas drilling in 2019. It had gone quiet until CCG vessels began persistent patrols in July. That coincides with Hanoi’s decision to cancel planned drilling in Block 06-01—the site of the 2019 standoff," it read.
"Given the presence of important energy resources and the vulnerable DK1 platforms at Vanguard Bank, whether Hanoi will more actively contest the CCG’s newest patrol route bears watching."
There is still no comment from Chinese officials on the AMTI-CSIS report.
'COVID OR NO COVID'
AMTI-CSIS director Greg Poling, in an interview with ANC Monday, said COVID-19 did not deter China to increase its frequency of patrols in the disputed waters.
"The Chinese Coast Guard's presence is increasing year by year before COVID. It seems to have increased this year COVID or no COVID," he said.
He said this was provocative for China to do because other claimants in the South China Sea were dealing with the repercussions of a pandemic that originated from them.
Wuhan City in Hubei province has been dubbed the ground zero of the pandemic, which has so far infected almost 67 million people, of which 1.5 million have died.
"The fact that nobody does anything about it, in a way normalizes that behavior. So China will be able to say, 'Look, we've been out there. We've been regularly patrolling.' And nobody has tried to stop us. That's an implicit recognition that these are Chinese waters," Poling said.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights to its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), rejecting China’s historic claim to resources in the South China Sea using its 9-dash line doctrine.
The Hague-based tribunal issued its ruling based on UNCLOS, an international treaty that "lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world's oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources."
Other countries such as Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims in the vital sea lane.
In November, President Rodrigo Duterte told his fellow Southeast Asian leaders that the ruling against Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea "cannot be diminished nor ignored."
"The Philippine position is clear and firm. We must solve the disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS," he added.
Four years on, China continues to disregard the landmark ruling.