Expert: China has placed 50 ships ahead of PH mission

“Most likely the militia fleet is being sent there because it is best positioned to operate closer to the Philippines, and also because of availability of supplies and facilities for the vessels and crew,” according to an expert.

Nestor Corrales

Nestor Corrales

Philippines Daily Inquirer


Chinese militia vessels operate at Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea, December 2, 2023. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD/ REUTERS/ PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER

January 26, 2024

MANILA – China has deployed at least 50 maritime militia ships at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef ahead of another mission to resupply Filipino troops on a decrepit World War II-era ship serving as the Philippines’ outpost at the nearby Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, according to an American maritime expert.

Ray Powell, who leads Project Myoushu (South China Sea) at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University, told the Inquirer on Thursday that 35 big ships belonging to Qiong Sansha Yu fleet and 15 smaller ones were spotted at Panganiban.

He said “there may be more that I cannot see.”

Over the weekend, Powell said that a major rotation of maritime militia vessels was under way across the South China Sea.

He said on Thursday that “most of them” were deployed to Panganiban in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

‘They never really fish’

The Qiong Sansha Yu ships are China’s “professional” militia vessels, Powell said.

“They are identified as fishing ships but they really never fish. They are essentially paramilitary vessels,” he said.

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These ships were “mostly responsible for blockading Ayungin Shoal and there are more than [the] usual [number] at Mischief Reef right now,” Powell told the Inquirer.“China may be keeping force levels high there until after the Philippines’ next resupply of nearby Second Thomas Shoal,” he said.

Artificial island

Philippine maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal said Panganiban was “the largest artificial island” in the South China Sea built by China. It is about 232 km west of Palawan province and 37 km southeast of Ayungin.

According to Batongbacal, it has port facilities that service the People’s Liberation Army Navy, China Coast Guard and maritime militia fleets. Panganiban is being used as a base by Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft and “could also be used as an air base by combat aircraft,” he said.

Panganiban also has antiair and antiship missiles, radars and jammers, and it is the closest Chinese military base to the Philippines, said Batongbacal, who is head of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea of the University of the Philippines College of Law.

“Most likely the militia fleet is being sent there because it is best positioned to operate closer to the Philippines, and also because of availability of supplies and facilities for the vessels and crew,” he told the Inquirer. But Batongbacal said the vessels’ “deployment per se is not yet an escalation considering that these kinds of deployments have been going on ever since those bases became operational.”

Flash point

China took control of the Panganiban Reef in 1995. Four years later, the Philippine military grounded the landing ship BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin, where it has deteriorated over the years.

Ayungin has been a flash point in the recurring tensions between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea as the Chinese coast guard, militia and navy try to thwart every effort to bring fresh supplies to the troops on the Sierra Madre.

On Nov. 10 last year, a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship also fired a water cannon on a Philippine resupply boat on its way to the ship.

In February, a CCG vessel pointed a military grade laser at a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol ship also on its way to Ayungin, temporarily blinding its crew on the bridge.

Airdrop last weekend

The last resupply mission to the Sierra Madre was in December last year. A senior military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the military airdropped supplies to the ship last weekend after the resupply by sea was postponed.

Asked whether Beijing could still be trusted with its deployment of its maritime militia vessels close to Ayungin just days after the Philippines and China agreed to deescalate tensions in the area, Batongbacal said that such trust was “not necessarily dependent” or connected to this move.

“Trust in China is a function of the entire relationship, not a single action like this one,” he said. “Government at this point can only observe and remain vigilant about the subsequent activities of those vessels.”

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, bringing it into maritime disputes not only with the Philippines but also Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

It rejected the 2016 arbitral award which recognized Philippine sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea and nullified Beijing’s expansive claims, saying China had no legal and historical basis.

In his monthly press briefing in Beijing on Thursday, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Col. Wu Qian accused the Philippines of “violating China’s sovereignty and making provocations in the South China Sea” while “in collusion with external powers” with Manila’s plans to reinforce construction in the Spratly Islands.

PH-Vietnam cooperation

The PCG and the Vietnamese Coast Guard (VCG) would be signing a proposed memorandum of understanding (MOU) on maritime cooperation which the two sides have been working on since 2018 during President Marcos’ visit to Hanoi next week, according to PCG spokesperson Rear Adm. Armand Balilo.

The MOU “aims to enhance the strategic partnership and cooperation between the PCG and VCG toward the promotion, preservation and protection of their mutual interest in the Southeast Asian region,” the PCG said.


The final draft of the MOU said the agreement would allow Manila and Hanoi to better manage conflicts in the South China Sea “in accordance with principles of international law, the national laws of each party, and international conventions to which both Vietnam and Philippines are parties.”

China tends to view progress in the resolution of border disputes among other South China Sea claimants with skepticism, but its response to this MOU could be muted because the deal is not about recognition of maritime claims, according to a Reuters report quoting Phan Xuan Dung, researcher on Vietnam at the Singapore-based ISEAS (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies) think tank.

“The two most promising areas of cooperation between the Philippines and Vietnam are food security and maritime security,” added Alexander Vuving, of the Hawaii-based Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Reuters reported.

“But Vietnam is far more cautious than the Philippines about not angering China” on maritime security, Vuving said.

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