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‘At least 195 Chinese vessels a day in SCS’

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Think tank: 183 China ships swarmed Mischief Reef in July

The Chinese maritime militia is as active as ever in the West Philippine Sea, deploying an average of 195 vessels a day across 10 features in the South China Sea—and a high of 183 ships at the Philippines’ Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) alone last July—a Washington-based think tank’s recent report showed.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted the “dramatic shift” of China’s maritime militia deployment in a report it published on Feb. 28, including in areas within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

For the entire 2023, AMTI tracked Chinese ships deployed across the South China Sea using its satellite imagery, specifically in the following features: Fiery Cross Reef, Hughes Reef, Iroquois Reef, Subi Reef, Thitu Reefs/Sandy Cay, Whitsun Reef, and Gaven Reef.

The tracking extended to Philippine maritime features Mischief Reef (Panganiban), Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc), and Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin).

An average of 195 Chinese militia vessels, sized between 45 to 65 meters, were observed across these locations last year, the think tank noted.

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This represented “an increase of 35 percent from AMTI’s last observation of the militia over a 12-month period in 2021-2022,” the report said.

“This overall increase was accompanied by a dramatic shift in vessels to Mischief Reef in the summer of 2023: over 180 militia ships were observed gathered in imagery from July after only a minimal presence in the months prior, a number confirmed by Philippine authorities in reporting at the time,” it added.

The reason for the greater presence of Chinese vessels in the Mischief Reef from the peak of only 37 vessels in October 2021, was unclear, AMTI said.

The largest consistent groupings of militia vessels were spotted at Hughes Reef and Whitsun Reef. There was also a “persistent militia presence” near China’s outpost at Gaven Reef, and smaller boat groups were observed at the reefs east of Thitu Reef and at Iroquois Reef, it added.

“While it is true that the militia vessels seen active at Second Thomas Shoal typically operate out of Mischief, deploying to Second Thomas in response to Philippine resupply missions, the summer surge at Mischief appears mostly unrelated to those efforts,” the report added.

“Satellite imagery suggests that only a minority of the boats at Mischief were the professional type seen supporting Chinese blockade efforts at Second Thomas, and the peak occurred months before militia counts during those missions began to rise.”

Last December, a Philippine aerial mission to the Mischief Reef using an aircraft of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) was met by flares China fired from the maritime feature.

Still, the patrol managed to capture images of the facilities that China had built on the reef well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Seen from above were the infrastructure projects China built at the Mischief Reef including a hangar, building projects, a sports complex, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and eight basketball courts, among others.

Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal has said that Ayungin Shoal was an ideal extension of Mischief Reef, being located just 25 miles from each other.

The vessel BRP Sierra Madre has been aground at Ayungin Shoal since 1999.

Last January, the Philippine Navy reported that some 200 militia ships, 15 to 25 warships, and 10 to 15 coast guard ships from China were observed around Mischief Reef.

Philippine Navy spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, who reported the monitored deployment, earlier said: “This is in Mischief Reef. Every now and then (Chinese ships) get deployed all over the South China Sea.

“At any time, they will be moving, some of them will be anchored, especially the maritime militia, so it is difficult to give you the exact number at an exact point in time.”

Despite this, Trinidad said the situation was “not alarming” and was considered “normal.” The Philippine government sued China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013.

The Court ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016 when it junked China’s nine-dash claim over the South China Sea.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that the Spratly Islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, and Recto (Reed) Bank are within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Scarborough Shoal, meanwhile, was deemed as a common fishing ground. Beijing, however, has repeatedly refused to honor the ruling. With Vince Lopez

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