China Masses Militia Ships in Spratlys, Transit of USS Gabrielle Giffords Irks Beijing

December 4, 2023 3:43 PM
Chinese Maritime Militia vessels. Philippine Coast Guard Photo

Littoral Combat Ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10) sailed past Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea, prompting an angry response from the Chinese military. Meanwhile, the Philippines issued a release on Sunday stating that more than 135 China Maritime Militia (CMM) were massing around a Philippine claimed reef in the Spratlys.
In Monday’s statement, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Col. Tian Junli, spokesman for the Southern Theater Command, said Gabrielle Giffords sailed into Chinese waters without prior notification and violated Chinese law.

“The United States has deliberately disrupted the South China Sea, seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, severely undermined regional peace and stability, and seriously violated international law and basic norms governing international relations,” reads the release. “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and adjacent waters.”

In a statement on Monday, U.S. 7th Fleet said, “USS Gabrielle Giffords was conducting routine operations in international waters in the South China Sea, consistent with international law. Every day the U.S. 7th Fleet operates in the South China Sea, as they have for decades.”

A Navy spokesperson did not characterize the nature of the transit when reached by USNI News on Monday.

On Nov. 23, Gabrielle Giffords carried out a maritime cooperative activity in the South China Sea, as well as with joint patrols from Nov. 21 – 23 with the Philippine military.

Second Thomas Shoal is claimed by both the Philippines and China with the Philippines currently occupying it with an outpost consisting of the grounded landing ship tank BRP Sierra Madre (LS-57), which is occupied by a dozen Philippine marines.

Chinese forces have used rammed ships and used water cannons to prevent Philippine resupply boats from reaching the Sierra Madre. PLA warships also maintain a presence around the shoal though their activities so far have been to shadow and maintain a watch on Philippine ships in the area.

On Sunday, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) issued a release stating that a patrol carried out by patrol vessels BRP Sindangan (MRRV-4407) and BRP Cabra (MRRV-4409) to Whitsun Reef also known as the Juan Felipe Reef found 135 CMM vessels there, with the number increasing. “No response was made to the radio challenges issued by the PCG to the CMM vessels, which is now estimated to have grown to more than 135 vessels dispersed and scattered within Julian Felipe Reef,” said the release.

The release also stated that on Nov. 13, the PCG monitored 111 CMM vessels swarming Julian Felipe Reef, and this number increased to 125 based on the last monitoring of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). In response to this “alarming development,” said the release, National Security Adviser General Eduardo Año directed the PCG to carry out a maritime patrol to challenge and document the illegal CMM presence in Julian Felipe Reef.

USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10) transits the Eastern Pacific Ocean on Oct. 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

The PCG also included a video and photographs showing the CMM ships at Juan Felipe Reef with the release. The reef is part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, though it is also claimed by China and Vietnam. In March 2021, more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels anchored there, prompting protests from the Philippines.

On Monday, China Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated during a press conference that the reef was part of China’s Nansha Islands and that relevant waters of the South China Sea, including the reef and adjacent waters, have always been important operating areas and shelters for Chinese fishing boats. “It is justified and lawful for Chinese fishing boats to operate or shelter from wind in the area, and the Philippines is in no position to make irresponsible remarks,” said Wang.

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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