December 15, 2023
MANILA – Chinese ships staged a rare “invasion” of Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal in the West Philippine Sea in a “calculated show of force by Beijing,” after disrupting a Philippine resupply mission in the same waters over the weekend, according to a maritime security expert.
As many as 11 Chinese maritime militia vessels were observed in the Philippine-held shoal while dozens more clustered in the periphery on Monday, a day after the tension-filled supply run, said Ray Powell, SeaLight director at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, citing satellite images by Planet Labs.
“This highly unusual invasion of the shoal’s interior appears to have been a calculated show of force by Beijing,” he wrote in an analysis on the SeaLight website on Thursday.
“It’s quite rare to see PRC (People’s Republic of China) vessels enter the shoal’s interior at all, but 11 is certainly the highest number we’ve yet observed at SeaLight. In fact, it may be unprecedented,” he added.
On Sunday, China Coast Guard (CCG) ships blasted water cannons at Philippine vessels and rammed one of them during the latter’s resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre, a Navy warship deliberately run aground in Ayungin to serve as a Philippine outpost.
Ayungin is a low-tide elevation within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, one of the nine features occupied by the Philippines in the Kalayaan Island Group, or the Spratlys.
During Sunday’s incident, one of the two supply boats, the ML Kalayaan, had to be towed back to port after sustaining significant damage from the high-intensity water cannon attack by the Chinese.
It wasn’t the first time the Chinese had tried to obstruct the Filipinos’ regular rotation and resupply runs but its blockading force would typically return to nearby Panganiban (Mischief) Reef once the boats and their escorts departed the shoal, noted Powell.
“This weekend, however, the vessel swarm remained for an additional 24 hours (until Monday afternoon) and 11 pushed inside before returning to Mischief,” he said.
Panganiban Reef, also located within the Philippines’ EEZ and which lies 37 km northwest of Ayungin, has been transformed by China into one of its largest military outposts in the Spratlys, with a 3-km airstrip, missile shelters, hangars and radar domes.
“Imagery from Planet Labs taken at 0955 local time (0155 UTC) on Monday clearly shows the 11 vessels spread throughout the shoal,” Powell wrote.
Two of these were rafted together near the northwest corner about 2 km south of the Sierra Madre.
None of the ships inside the shoal could be detected through the automatic information system (AIS) signals, he said.
Another fleet of 27 Chinese vessels, including China Coast Guard 5402 and 26 Qiong Sansha Yu militia ships, were detected on AIS surrounding the shoal, he added. More vessels were visible outside the shoal without corresponding AIS signals, so the total number is likely augmented by other AIS-dark militia and CCG ships, Powell said.
Philippine authorities believe CCG ships are being assisted by Chinese maritime militia vessels posing as fishing boats to harass Philippine ships in the West Philippine Sea.
On Monday, the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) reported sighting 46 Chinese vessels—14 Chinese maritime militia in the vicinity and another 22 detected using AIS, eight CCG ships and two Chinese Navy vessels—“the largest number of maritime forces that we have documented so far in the previous months.”
The task force said China’s dangerous maneuvers and water cannon attacks during resupply missions in Ayungin and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal marked a “serious escalation.”
Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos told the Inquirer that there were five Chinese militia vessels inside the shoal as of Thursday, located 3.7 km to 9.26 km (2 to 5 nautical miles) away from the Sierra Madre.
The Chinese ships usually loiter outside the shoal.
“The presence of foreign vessels loitering in our exclusive economic zone is always worrisome,“ he said, adding: “Based on our assessment, their presence inside the shoal is to closely monitor the BRP Sierra Madre. We always observe them taking photos.”
For now, Carlos said, the Philippines’ intention is to drive away the Chinese vessels in a “nonconfrontational” manner by deploying rubber boats.
In a separate interview, Carlos said the NTF-WPS was planning a different approach for its rotation and reprovision (Rore) mission in response to China’s growing aggression.
“As far as the future Rore… there’s a new strategy so we are waiting for that to be approved by the President. If that is approved, we will see how we will come up with a new strategy or other approaches for the Rore, consistent with that new strategy,” he told the Inquirer on Wednesday.
“But while it is not yet approved, we will continue with the same protocols, same procedures for our Rore,” he added.
Defense Undersecretary Ignacio Madriaga told a House panel last week that the military had been trying “a different menu of responses to the Chinese in doing our Rore so that it will complicate matters for the Chinese and that will give us a greater chance of success.”
Since Sunday’s mission was only partly completed with one boat unable to make it to the Sierra Madre, supply runs are being planned for this month and January, according to Carlos.
“We’re still evaluating the damage [to the supply vessels] and how fast we can put it back into operational status,” he said.
Carlos surmised that the Chinese were especially determined to disrupt last weekend’s mission to prevent the civilian-led “Atin Ito (This is Ours)” coalition that was delivering Christmas gifts and provisions to troops and island settlers in the West Philippine Sea.
The convoy’s mother ship Kapitan Felix Oca was forced to turn back after Chinese vessels shadowed it, but a smaller boat managed to slip past them and unloaded the supplies on Lawak (Nanshan) Island.