China ‘normalizes presence’ in West Philippine Sea with more patrols – US think tank

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File photo of a China Coast Guard vessel

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 5) — The Chinese Coast Guard has bolstered its presence in the West Philippine Sea over the past year, with no signs of a letup during the coronavirus crisis, according to a Washington-based think tank.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative recently flagged that Chinese forces conducted patrols at Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag, for a total of 287 days from Dec. 1, 2019. At least one Chinese Coast Guard ship, often two, would broadcast Automatic Identification System data from Scarborough Shoal during this period, the AMTI said, analyzing information collected by the tracking service MarineTraffic.

This is an almost 80% increase from the 162 days that the Chinese Coast Guard patrolled Scarborough Shoal in 2019, the AMTI said.

The Philippines lost control over Scarborough Shoal, located west of Zambales, after a controversial standoff with China in 2012. This prompted the country to file a case for international arbitration. An arbitral tribunal in The Hague recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights in areas within its exclusive economic zone that China contests, and said Beijing violated Filipinos’ rights in blocking fishermen from Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground.

China rejects the landmark ruling.

READ: Duterte tells ASEAN, Beijing: Resist urge to militarize South China Sea

According to data released by the AMTI, China patrolled Scarborough Shoal more than any other contested feature included in its monitoring.

Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines calls Ayungin, saw patrols for 232 days.

“Those patrolling Second Thomas often made loops around nearby Half-Moon Shoal, a submerged feature 60 nautical miles off Palawan where, in 2014, Philippine authorities arrested 11 Chinese fishers for poaching,” the AMTI noted.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Coast Guard spent 279 days on another South China Sea feature –- the Luconia Shoals. It forms part of Malaysia’s continental shelf but disputed by China.

“Southeast Asian claimants largely refrain from deploying law enforcement or naval vessels to contest these routine patrols,” the AMTI said. “This suggests that China is successfully normalizing its presence.”

The AMTI added that the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in China “has had no discernible effect” on Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, including areas Manila claims as the West Philippine Sea.

China even appears “to have increased the frequency of patrols during the pandemic,” the AMTI said. In July, the Chinese Coast Guard started a patrol route at Vanguard Bank, a submerged feature off Vietnam’s southeast coast. It has since conducted patrols on 137 of the 153 days since July 1.

China may have even done a higher number of patrols at Scarborough, Second Thomas, Luconia, and Vanguard, the AMTI said, noting that ships may not be broadcasting AIS signals consistently as required by the International Maritime Organization.

“For example, AIS data indicates there were no vessels at Scarborough Shoal on May 14, but a high-resolution satellite image from Maxar reveals two Zhaoyu-class patrol vessels on station,” the AMTI said.