23 April 2021

Caught on Camera: Two Dozen Militia Boats at Whitsun Reef Identified

The latest pathbreaking analysis from Greg Poling and his colleagues at AMTI!

Caught on Camera: Two Dozen Militia Boats at Whitsun Reef Identified,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 21 April 2021.

Last month, the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, an interagency body housed within the Presidential Office in Manila, reported that more than 200 Chinese militia vessels were anchored at Whitsun Reef. The task force released photos of some of those vessels, collected during a patrol by the Philippine Coast Guard on March 7. Additional images and video were released after two subsequent patrols by the Philippine Coast Guard ship Cabra. As with other known militia deployments, the behavior 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. 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.

AMTI has identified 14 of the ships in these photos and videos. To these can be added the vessels of the Yuetaiyu fleet, numbered 18000-18999. Those nine ships have broadcast AIS from Whitsun several times, as previously reported by Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson. Their involvement in the militia has been well-documented and AMTI first tracked them patrolling Union Banks, which includes Whitsun Reef, in early 2019.

A photo taken during the initial Philippine patrol on March 7 shows six Chinese vessels tied together at Whitsun Reef. Only the bow numbers and the first two characters, Yue (粤) and Mao (茂), of five of the ships can be clearly seen. By cross referencing this information with vessel profiles in the commercial AIS database Marine Traffic, AMTI can identify them as the Yuemaobinyu (粤茂滨渔) 42881, 42882, 42883, 42885, and 42886.

These names will sound familiar in the Philippines. In early 2019, the Yuemaobinyu 42212—so named because it operates from the same port as these five—rammed and sank the Philippine fishing vessel F/B Gem-Ver 1 at Reed Bank. AMTI afterward discovered that the vessel had a history of government contracts and suspicious AIS activity, but could not conclusively prove that it was part of the militia.

Video shot during the Cabra’s first patrol on March 26-27 provides a clear shot of another vessel, the Yueyangxiyu (粤阳西渔) 96523:

Also visible is a vessel with the bow number 08041—almost certainly the Yuezhanyu (粤湛渔) 08041. That conclusion is supported by both AIS data from Marine Traffic and the later identification of its sister ships, the Yuezhanyu 08039, 08042, and 08043 in a video shot during the Cabra’s recent return visit on April 12-13.

This second video also captured the Yuexinhuiyu (粤新会渔) 60138 and 60139, which Andrew Erickson and Ryan Martinson recently profiled in Foreign Policy. … … …