Chinese Warship, Cutter Violate Pag-asa Island Territorial Sea, Says Philippine Coast Guard

March 6, 2023 4:26 PM
A Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy off the coast of Pag-asa Island on March 3, 2023. Philippine Coast Guard Photo

A Chinese warship, a China Coast Guard ship and 42 Maritime Militia ships operated within the 12-nautical mile territorial sea around Pag-Asa Island, internationally known as Thitu island, in the Spratly Island archipelago Saturday, according to a Philippine Coast Guard statement.

The PCG released a low resolution of the People’s Liberation Army warship while the China Coast Guard ship was identified as CCG 5203. The Chinese ships operated 4.5 to 8 nautical miles from Pag-asa Island, which is administered by the Philippines.

The PLAN ship and CCG 5203 were observed to be slowly loitering within the surrounding waters of Pag-asa Island with a distance of 8 nautical miles and 4 nautical miles respectively. Fourteen suspected China Maritime Militia ships were anchored within the vicinity of Pag-asa Cay 3 – an estimated distance of 4 nautical miles west of Pag-asa Island – while the other 28 suspected maritime militia ships were monitored to be within the area of Pag-asa Cay 4.

“The observed location of the Chinese vessels fall squarely within Pag-asa Island’s 12 [nautical miles] territorial sea,” according to the PCG statement. “Their continuing unauthorized presence is clearly inconsistent with the right of innocent passage and a blatant violation of the Philippines’ territorial integrity.”

China’s Foreign Ministry has yet to comment on the statement so far. Last month, China’s Foreign Ministry denied that a China Coast Guard ship directed a military-grade laser light at PCG patrol vessel BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403) on Feb. 6.

A China Coast Guard cutter off the coast of Pag-asa Island on March 3, 2023. Philippine Coast Guard Photo

Pag-Asa Island was originally held by Taiwan, but the garrison withdrew in 1971 to avoid a typhoon, and the island was then taken by the Philippines military in its absence.

In 2001, the Philippines placed a civilian population there with an estimated 300 to 400 residents currently living on the island. It serves as the administrative capital of the Municipality of Kalayaan, which is the district covering all Philippines holdings in the Spratly Islands though Pag-Asa is the only one with a civilian population. China, Taiwan and Vietnam do not recognise Philippine sovereignty over Pag-Asa with Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry stating in 2021 that all activities violating Vietnam’s legal and historic sovereignty over the Spratly Islands were illegal in response to Philippine plans to upgrade the facilities on the island. China, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim the entirety of the Islands, while the other claimants, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines claim the portions close to their territories.

Over in Thailand, Cobra Gold 23 field exercise since it formally began on Feb. 27. The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), which includes amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8) and amphibious transport docks USS Anchorage (LPD-23) and USS John P. Murtha (LPD-26) along with the embarked 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit MEU, are taking part in the exercise.

Anchorage conducted a casualty evacuation drill on Thurday, while Makin Island and John P..Murtha have been involved in amphibious drills along with Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) landing ship tank ROKS Il Chul Bong (LST-688) and Royal Thai Navy (RTN) landing platform dock HTMS Angthong (LPD-791). U.S, Korean and Thai Marines conduct amphibious assault landing exercise that commenced on Thursday. Elements of the U.S Army’s 7th Infantry Division have been conducting live fire and field exercises with their Royal Thai Army (RTA) counterparts while personnel from the 82nd Airborne Division conducted a parachute drop and field exercise with the Thai Army on Friday at Thanarat Drop Zone in Thailand.

Exercise Iron Fist 23 is ongoing around the southwestern islands of Japan with the 31st MEU and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), along with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and U.S Navy, conducting an amphibious drill on Tokuno Island Friday.

On Wednesday, amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) and amphibious transport dock USS Green Bay (LPD-20) completed a bilateral mine counter-measure transit in the East China Sea with JMSDF minesweepers JS Hirashima (MSC -601) and JS Yakushima (MSC-602), and landing ship tank JS Osumi (LST-4001) as part of the exercise. On Thursday, America conducted joint flight operations with JGSDF CH-47 helicopters with the CH-47s landing, refuelling and flying off the ship.

The Navy and Marine participation in Cobra Gold 23 and Iron Fist 23 is overseen by Task Force 76/3, a temporary joint U.S. Navy and Marine Corps command formed from the merging the staffs of the Navy’s Task Force 76, 7th Fleet and 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, III Marine Expeditionary Force. The task force is carrying out an experimental period of operations in the Indo-Pacific region to determine the best way forward for an integrated Navy and Marines Corps command.

“Task Force 76/3 is currently conducting distributed operations; Exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand and Exercise Iron Fist in Japan. Both training exercises strengthen our relationships with our allies, and promote the sharing of ideas and procedures,” according to a Monday social media post from the task force.

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defense journalist and analyst based in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. Among the publications he has written for and currently writes for since 1998 includes Defence Review Asia, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Navy International, International Defence Review, Asian Defence Journal, Defence Helicopter, Asian Military Review and the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter.

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