China Ships Still Operating Near Pag-asa, Says Philippine Coast Guard

March 11, 2023 7:21 AM - Updated: March 20, 2023 3:46 PM
A China Coast Guard cutter off the coast of Pag-asa Island on March 3, 2023. Philippine Coast Guard Photo

China reduced the number of ships off the disputed Spratly Islands archipelago Pag-asa, according to officials in the Philippines.

A Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) flight showed fewer Chinese Maritime Militia ships around the island internationally known as Thitu island compared to the previous week, according to a Friday release. There is also a People’s Liberation Army Navy ship operating nearby – a Type 056 Jiangdao-class corvette.

“The PCG noted a decrease in the number of suspected CMM vessels observed over Pag-asa – from forty-two (42) last week to fifteen (15) on 09 March 2023,” according to the release, which added that the Jiangdao class corvette and China Coast Guard (CGC) ship 5203 continue to loiter within Pag-asa Island’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea since last week.

The PCG flight also observed CCG ship 5304 approximately six nautical miles from the grounded Philippine Navy landing ship tank BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57), near Ayungin Shoal, also called Second Thomas Shoal internationally.

Former USS Harnett County (LST-821), which operated in the U.S Navy from World War II to the Vietnam War, before transferring to the Republic of South Vietnam Navy in 1970. It arrived in the Philippines in 1975 following the republic’s fall and subsequently was transferred to the Philippine Navy in 1976. Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded at the shoal in 1999 by the Philippines to stake its claim to the shoal and to serve as an outpost there that is manned by a garrison of a dozen Philippine Marines.

Chinese Maritime Militia vessels were down to 17 compared to 26 observed at Sabrine Shoal – also known as Escoda Schoal – two weeks ago, according to the release, which also stated that during the flight, the PCG flight received a total of seven radio challenges from the CCG vessels: four challenges while over Pag-asa Island’s territorial sea and three while over the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal. The release did not state which aircraft type conducted the MDA flight. The PCG operates two Britten-Norman BN-2 Islanders and a single Cessna 208 Caravan in its wing inventory. The flight also embarked a small number of Philippine and foreign media, Reuters reported.

China, along with Taiwan and Vietnam, does not recognize Philippine sovereignty over Manila’s holdings in the Spratlys as all three nations claim the archipelago in its entirety. China foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a Friday press conference that China has sovereignty over the Spratlys and its adjacent waters and thus it was reasonable and legal for it to carry out activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction, according to Reuters.

Australia, Japan and the United States conducted the Trilateral ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) Exchange at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Honshu, from Monday to Wednesday, according to releases from the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) and Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF).

The exercise involved a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft, (MPA) a JMSDF EP-3 Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft, a JMSDF OP-3C reconnaissance aircraft, a JASDF RC-2 ELINT aircraft and a United States Air Force RC-135 electronic and signal intelligence aircraft. The exercise enabled the exchange of information, improved tactical capabilities and interoperability among participants, according to the release.

The JMSDF aircraft were part of JMSDF Fleet Air Wing 31 stationed at MCAS Iwakuni while the RAAF P-8A has been operating from Kadena airbase, Okinawa, since early February under Operation Argos, the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) commitment to the international effort to enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea. The RAAF P-8A has been conducting surveillance and monitoring missions on ships suspected to be operating in breach of these sanctions with its deployment to end in early March.

On Thursday, the JMSDF issued a release stating that a JMSDF EP-3 ELINT aircraft from Fleet Air Wing 31 conducted Despatched Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare Training and a bilateral exercise with U.S Navy EP-3E ELINT aircraft and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington state, from Feb. 24 until Tuesday. The JMSDF routinely dispatches its ships, submarines and aircraft to conduct bilateral, specialized training in the United States with the most recent notable instance being in November last year when two JMSDF destroyers conducted Ballistic Missile Defence missile firings.

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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