22 March 2021

Manila Protests Presence of Hundreds of Chinese Ships in Contested Waters

Aie Balagtas See and Zachary Haver, “Manila Protests Presence of Hundreds of Chinese Ships in Contested Waters,” Radio Free Asia, 22 March 2021.

… … … According to Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., the 220 Chinese ships were seen moored at the “large boomerang shaped shallow coral reef” [Whitsun Reef] on March 7 – and they were not fishing.

“Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during night time,” Esperon said on Saturday.

Photographs of the 220 ships indicated they were [most likely] maritime militia vessels, which were not involved in fishing activities, said Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.

“The photos from the Philippine Coast Guard and statement from Defense Secretary Lorenzana match verified information on China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM),” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“The ships photographed look and act very much like the 84 large steel-hulled vessels purpose-built at multiple shipyards by 2016 for the leading Sansha City Maritime Militia, as documented by both the U.S. Department of Defense and Office of Naval Intelligence.”

Automatic identification system-data for the past few years had shown Sansha ships engaged in rotational forward deployments to China-claimed features and outposts throughout the South China Sea, he said.

“Crewed by well-salaried full-time personnel recruited in part from former PLA ranks, they appear not to bother fishing – the better to focus on trolling for territory,” Erickson said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army.

“Such vessels reportedly have weapons lockers, and official PRC [People’s Republic of China] photos depict exercises in which they are loaded with ‘light arms.’”

The presence of these vessels conforms to Beijing’s established South China Sea modus operandi, Erickson added.

“Two implications arise immediately: First, if not properly countered at Whitsun Reef, or elsewhere, PAFMM vessels could support further territorial seizure akin to what China achieved at Scarborough Shoal in 2012,” he said.

In 2012, the Chinese seized Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground within the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy.

“Second, if these [approximately] 220 vessels indeed belong to leading professionalized, militarized PAFMM units, they alone should significantly increase the U.S. government’s sole public estimate of total PAFMM ship numbers – which may be excessively conservative at [approximately] 84 vessels total, a number projected to remain fixed through 2030.” … … …