LOOK: Satellite images show Chinese maritime militia near 2 PH islands
CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe
MANILA - New satellite images from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative-Center for Strategic and International Studies reveal Chinese maritime militia drawing near Kota Island and Panata Island in Philippine territory in March and April this year.
The AMTI-CSIS report said satellite images collected on March 12, 16, and 29, and April 7 confirm the presence of Chinese vessels in the area, most of which show every indication of belonging to the maritime militia.
"In almost every instance, the vessels are riding at anchor, many in large clusters, and without fishing gear in the water," the report said.
The Philippine military earlier said over 600 Chinese vessels have been circling Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island) in the West Philippine Sea since January this year.
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief-of-staff Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr., however, said the actual number is closer to 200-plus vessels, not 600.
Manila has issued a rare public rebuke of Beijing following the presence of hundreds of Chinese maritime militia in the area.
Last March 12, a single Chinese fishing trawler of about 50 meters was visible near Kota Island in the Spratlys. On March 16, the number increased to 8 Chinese trawlers. By March 29, there were at least 15 large Chinese fishing vessels and eight small boats in the area.
None of the vessels were engaged in trawling or appeared to have fishing gear deployed, the AMTI-CSIS report said.
"Thirteen of the Chinese vessels in the area measured roughly 50 meters while two were about 20 meters. Some were located between 2 and 2.5 nautical miles from [Kota] Island, and one loitered near unoccupied Lankiam Cay to the east, but most were arrayed around [Panata Island]," it said.
The report also said 4 Chinese trawlers were riding at anchor less than half a nautical mile (about a kilometer) from the Philippine outpost at Panata Island, "considerably closer than AMTI has ever seen militia vessels approach another country’s facility before."
"This must be particularly provocative for the Philippine detachment on the cay, who likely rely on frequent resupply and relief from those on Loaita Island," the AMTI-CSIS report said.
A satellite image also showed a Philippine Navy LST-542-class tank landing ship about 1 nautical mile east of Panata Island.
The report said the two 20-meter Chinese vessels near Panata Island were each towing 3 small boats. The vessels, the report said, appear similar to the “chopper boats” and their mother ships often seen harvesting giant clams by intentionally destroying coral reefs around the South China Sea, most recently at Scarborough Shoal.
"No new scarring is visible on the reefs, either on March 29 or in subsequent imagery, so these boats could have been engaged in other types of reef fishing. Or, like the larger Chinese vessels, they have been foregoing fishing in the service of the maritime militia, the report said.
Filipino fishermen recently told ABS-CBN News that Chinese Coast Guard ships drove them away from Scarborough Shoal as wooden ships that bore China's flag harvested giant clams.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Tuesday said the Philippines would take legal action against China over the clam harvest.
Last April 7, only 6 large vessels and two small boats were visible near the features. These include two 50-meter trawlers riding at anchor, three of the 20-meter vessels, including one towing two small boats less than half a nautical mile from Loaita Cay, and one 50-meter falling net vessel with its gear deployed—the only time a large Chinese vessel in any of these images appeared to be fishing.
A satellite image last April 14 shows no vessels "near Loaita Island, but Loaita Cay is not visible, so it is unclear whether Chinese vessels remain in the vicinity."
"In any case, this month-long deployment around the two features shows that the flotilla around Thitu Island is not a one-off incident. As prior research has shown, the maritime militia is and will likely remain the most visible arm of China’s power directed at its neighbors in the Spratly Islands," the report said.