The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) sighted 48 Chinese fishing vessels around the Philippines Economic Exclusion Zone in the South China Sea on June 30, the service announced Friday.
A Philippine Navy (PN) Brittan Norman Islander patrol aircraft spotted a large number of Chinese fishing vessels over the Iroquois Reef during patrols, the AFP Western Command said via Facebook on Friday. There were 48 Chinese fishing vessels around the reef as of the latest air patrol on June 30.
“The swarming of Chinese fishing vessels there is quite visible from the air,” Lt. Edgard Abogado, pilot-in-command of the PN aircraft, wrote in the post.
Co-pilot Lt. Karla Andres wrote on the post that the vessels did not appear to be vessels, just loitering in groups of five to seven.
The recent observations by the PN aircraft confirm earlier Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) flights conducted in the area, which indicated an increasing trend of Chinese fishing vessels, AFP Western Command said. The command recorded 12 fishing vessels in February 2023, which increased to 47 as of June 12.
The AFP Western Command also reported an increased presence of Chinese maritime assets at Sabina Shoal.
“Three China Coast Guard (CCG) ships and two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels are regularly loitering there compared to two wooden resupply boats from the Philippines and two Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels,” the command said.
WESTCOM included aerial photos taken by the flight, along with photos of the Chinese fishing vessels, China Coast Guard Zhaoyu class patrol cutter CG 3304 and PLAN Type 056 Jiangdao class corvette carrying hull number 629. The hull number identifies the PLAN corvette as CNS Tonglin (629).
“In response to the concerning presence of Chinese vessels swarming in the said areas, detailed reports will be forwarded to higher authorities as a crucial step that aims to facilitate the potential filing of a diplomatic protest, reinforcing our commitment to safeguarding Philippine sovereignty and territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea,” according to the post.
Iroquois Reef is part of the larger Reed Bank, known to the Philippines as Recto Bank, underwater volcanic mountain, which lies northeast of the disputed Spratly Islands.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in 2016 that Reed Bank is within the Philippine EEZ and the Philippines had economic rights for the area, although China refuses to recognize the ruling and claims the area as within its territory.
The area is said to be rich in hydrocarbon resources, but the Philippines has yet to commence any major extraction efforts due to the Chinese claim on the area.
The presence of PLAN and China Coast Guard vessels at Sabina Shoal, known internationally as Escoda Shoal, which is part of the Spratly Islands, is due to China’s ongoing presence and blockade operation against the nearby Philippines military outpost at Second Thomas Shoal.
The Philippines has a dozen Marines on the grounded landing ship tank BRP Sierra Madre (LS-57) at the military outpost. The World War II LST had been run aground deliberately in 1999 to serves as an outpost and stake the Philippines claim to the area. Since 2014 Chinese Coast Guard vessels have interfered with resupply missions to the outpost, including on June 30.
In a Wednesday tweet, Commodore Jay Tarriela, the PCG’s spokesperson said the PCG patrol vessels BRP Malabrigo (MRRV-4402) and BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403) conducted operations June 30 in support of WESTCOM, specifically escorting boats used by WESTCOM.
The PCG expressed concern on the behavior of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels because the China Coast Guard was exerting additional efforts to prevent the PCG from reaching Second Thomas Shoal, Tarriela said.
During the operation, the PCG was constantly followed, harassed and obstructed by the significantly larger Chinese Coast Guard ships at a distance of approximately 100 yards, he said. The Chinese Coast Guad ships blatantly disregard the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) in their attempts to obstruct passage and discourage the PCG vessels from approaching Second Thomas Shoal, he added.
Tarriela did not disclosed the identity of the China Coast Guard ships in his post but included photos of a China Coast Guard ship with the hull number 4203 in close proximity to Malabrigo.
Tarriela also said that PCG was concerned on the presence of two PLAN ships near Second Thomas Shoal. Despite the PCG operation being humanitarian in nature, China deployed warships in response.
“Nevertheless, the mission was successfully accomplished and the PCG vessels were able to safely return to their respective areas of operation” he wrote.
In a following post Wednesday, Tarriela posted pictures of the PLAN ships, saying that carried the hull numbers 620 and 629 and were 9 nautical miles away from Malapascua. The hull numbers identified the PLAN ships as Type 056 Jiangdao class corvettes CNS Ganzhou (620) and Tonglin.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Wang Wenbing said the Second Thomas Shoal is part of China’s Spratly Islands, referring to both the shoal and the islands by their Chinese names, in a Thursday press conference.
“On June 30, the Philippine Coast Guard vessels intruded into the waters off the Ren’ai Reef without Chinese permission,” he said. “In accordance with the law, the Chinese Coast Guard vessel carried out law enforcement activities to uphold China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order. The Chinese side’s maneuvers were professional and restrained.”
U.S. officials condemned the Chinese action in a readout of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s Thursday call y with Philippine Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr.
“Secretary Austin noted with concern the PRC’s recent coercive and risky operational behavior directed against Philippine vessels operating safely and lawfully in the South China Sea, including around Second Thomas Shoal,” according to the readout.
In the call, Austin “highlighted the United States’ ironclad alliance commitment with the Philippines and reiterated that the Mutual Defense Treaty extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces—to include those of its Coast Guard—in the Pacific, including anywhere in the South China Sea,” according to the readout.
The two defense chiefs reaffirmed their commitment to upholding the rules-based order and supporting the livelihoods of local Philippine communities and other claimant states that seek to conduct lawful maritime activities in the South China Sea, consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Ruling, reads the readout.
The unprofessional maneuvers of the China Coast Guard against the PCG concerned the U.S., U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson said in a social media post Friday.
“The PRC’s irresponsible behavior in the South China Sea threatens the security and legal rights of our treaty ally, the Philippines,” she wrote. “We call on the PRC to comply with international law, including implementing the legally binding 2016 award in the Philippines v. China Law of the Sea Convention arbitration as a starting point to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The 30 June incident is the latest in a string on of incidents between the PCG and the China Coast Guard. In February, Malapascua had a military grade laser directed at it. The ship had a near collision with a China Coast Guard vessel that sailed into its path in April.
Tarriela wrote in a Friday social media post that the PCG efforts to expose China’s aggressive actions in recent months have resulted in some changes in the behavior of the Chinese Coast Guard, “particularly in terms of how they shadow our PCG vessels,” although Chinese Coast Guard Actions are still a concern in areas such as the Second Thomas Shoal.
“Before we started being transparent about their actions, the CCG would closely shadow our vessels alongside, but now they trail behind them because they are concerned about being caught on camera engaged in their aggressive behaviors,” he said.