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Chinese ‘fishing fleet’ anchored on Philippine reef raises tensions

  • More than 200 Chinese fishing vessels were spotted anchored at Whitsun Reef, a disputed territory in the South China Sea, in early March, sparking tensions in the Philippines, which lays claim to the area.
  • Satellite images released today show, however, that the vessels, in varying numbers, have been in Whitsun since December last year.
  • The fishing vessels were not seen conducting fishing activities, and their continuing presence there raises fears that the posturing may be a prelude to the type of island-building China is known to conduct in the South China Sea.
  • It’s not the first time Chinese fishing vessels have triggered international consternation: Last year, a Chinese fleet loitered at the border of the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, while another in Malaysian waters prompted the U.S. and Australia to send out their warships in the South China Sea.

MANILA — The Philippines is protesting the presence of more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef, a shallow coral region located 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of the town of Bataraza in Palawan province. In addition to invoking sovereignty issues, the ships’ presence at the reef has raised fears that China may be targeting the reef for island-building activities to strengthen its claim to disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Around 220 blue-hulled Chinese fishing vessels have been moored in line formation at Whitsun Reef, known as Julian Felipe Reef to Filipinos, since as early as March 7, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said in a statement released March 20. New satellite images released March 26 show the ships, in varying numbers, may have been anchored at Whitsun since December 2020, three months longer than previously reported.

The task force, a multi-agency body chaired by the Philippines’ national security adviser, noted “possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation” in what the Philippine government calls the West Philippine Sea, the country’s western maritime border that forms part of the South China Sea.

Approximately 200 Chinese fishing vessels have been anchored in Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef. Image courtesy of the NTF-WPS

The South China Sea is the subject of heated geopolitical disputes and overlapping territorial claims. It’s also a known spawning ground for various fish species. The competition for the waterway’s marine resources, as well as its untapped potential for deep-sea oil and gas, has beckoned a drove of vessels, including China’s fishing militia, armed fishing fleets manned from the Chinese military ranks.

Fishing fleets from several nations are active in the region, but the report from the NTF-WPS raised doubts as to the vessels’ purpose at Whitsun. The fishing vessels were “believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel” and “[d]espite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during night time,” the NTF-WPS said.

Anchored since December

Whitsun Reef is the largest shallow coral formation in Union Bank, located at the heart of the disputed Spratly Islands. Although Whitsun has been relatively uninhabited, in part because it’s completely submerged, three governments have staked overlapping claims to the boomerang-shaped reef.

The Philippines claims Whitsun as part of its continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) since it lies within the country’s 200-nautical-mile (370-km) delineation defined by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. China and Vietnam have for years skipped occupying Whitsun directly but have built bases elsewhere in Union Bank.

A map of the northeast portion of Union Banks in the South China Sea. The image includes Whitsun Reef and two other reefs in the banks that have been occupied by China and Vietnam. Images were taken from Google Earth, March 23, 2021

However, Chinese vessels appear to have been present at Whitsun since late last year. A report released March 26 by Simularity Inc, a U.S.-based geospatial tech company that monitors the South China Sea, shows that possible Chinese fishing vessels, which appear as orange ships in satellite images, have been anchored at Whitsun since December 2020.

“Through the months, we’ve seen these fishing flotillas come and go in Whitsun Reef,” Liz Derr, Simularity’s CEO, told Mongabay.

“The number of ships varies on a day to day basis … some come and go,” she said. “But the number of ships we’re seeing now on Whitsun is the same number that we saw was anchored there last December.”

Derr said that based on satellite images, the ships are not doing any fishing nor have they moved significantly; they’ve just remained at anchor at Whitsun. “The way they’re tied together and anchored … there’s no way to fish in that configuration,” she said.

Screenshot from Simularity’s report on the Whitsun Reef released on March 26, 2020

‘Among friends’

In Manila, the Whitsun incident has triggered a diplomatic spat. On March 21, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. filed a protest with the Chinese Embassy. But the embassy rejected it, saying in a statement that the flotilla is not Chinese militia “as alleged” but fishing vessels harboring to avoid inclement weather.

“Recently, because of the maritime situation, China’s fishing vessels have been staying near Whitsun reef to shelter themselves from strong winds,” Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman based in Beijing, told the press on March 22. “This is very normal, and we hope all parties can view this reasonably.”

Hua added that Whitsun, called Niú è jiāo (牛轭礁) in China, is part of the Spratly Islands. China has long claimed the Spratlys, which fall within its “nine-dash line,” a U-shaped historical line Beijing uses to claim 90% of the area within the South China Sea. A Hague tribunal in 2016 quashed China’s sweeping claims, but Beijing has refused to acknowledge the decision.

A manta ray in the South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner / Divephoto.org

President Rodrigo Duterte, who since assuming office in 2016 has implemented an open-arms policy toward China, said he will raise the issue with the Chinese envoy to the Philippines. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters March 23 that the president “said there is nothing that cannot be discussed among friends.”

Despite protests by the Philippines and its allies, China has not recalled the fishing fleet. As of March 22, the military estimated that around 183 vessels remained at the reef. As of March 24, satellite images from Simularity showed approximately 200 fishing vessels anchored at Whitsun.

Increasing incursions

Following President Duterte’s embrace of a pro-China policy in 2016, incursions into the Philippines’ western maritime border have increased notably. Boat detection data collected through the visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS), a satellite technology that detects boats based on nighttime lights, show an increasing number of foreign vessels in disputed areas within the West Philippines Sea.

In 2015, VIIRS registered 97,437 boat detections across the whole stretch of the Philippines’ western border. In 2016, boat detections grew to 117,202, and in 2019 they increased again to 132,906. In the Spratlys, called the Kalayaan Island Group in the Philippines, boat detections increased as much as 36%: from 39,778 in 2016 to 54,357 in 2019.

These are foreign vessels from various nations. However, the Chinese vessels among them are particularly dangerous, geopolitical experts say, because they include fishing vessels as well as militia vessels. Chinese fishing vessels are twice the size of an average Filipino fishing boat and are much better built for the open seas; in 2019, the Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu 42212 rammed and sank the F/B Gem-Ver, a wooden-hulled Filipino fishing boat, and abandoned its crew in the high seas.

Chinese vessels were caught harvesting Tridacna gigas in the South China Sea in the last 10 years. T. gigas have been virtually extinct in the Philippines but were replanted by local scientists in various seascapes in the country, including the Spratlys. Now they are classified as vulnerable. Image courtesy of the UP-Marine Science Institute

Chinese fishermen have been caught on video harvesting giant clams that Filipino scientists repopulated in the Spratlys. On several occasions, Filipino small-scale fishers have told of being blocked from the fishing ground by the Chinese Coast Guard and its fishing fleets.

Prelude to island building?

The gathering at Whitsun is not the first time hundreds of Chinese vessels have caused international consternation. In June 2020, 260 Chinese boats loitered at the border of Ecuador’s ecologically sensitive Galápagos Islands catching squid; in 2017 and 2018, more than 700 Chinese squid-fishing vessels ventured into North Korean waters in violation of international sanctions. Last May, the U.S. and Australia sent navy ships to an oil-and-gas drilling operation in Malaysian waters in the South China Sea after Chinese vessels were seen patrolling the drilling site.

While China’s fishing fleets do carry out massive fishing operations, their presence in the South China Sea has been linked to territorial claims and island building. Maritime law experts in the Philippines who closely track geopolitical tensions in the region say the fishing vessels at Whitsun Reef appear to be a pretext for initiating the kind of island building China has carried out at Mischief Reef in the Spratlys and elsewhere to bolster claims over disputed territories.

Mischief Reef, a disputed atoll 97 km (60 mi) east of Whitsun, is among the first territories China claimed in the disputed waters. In 1995, China built a fishermen’s shelter there. By 2014, it had transformed the atoll into an artificial island with an air and naval base. Satellite images show that China continues to enhance the island’s features.

“While they [China] can exercise their right of navigation, they cannot sit there, park there, because that’s not their exclusive economic zone,” Antonio Carpio, former associate justice on the Philippines’ Supreme Court, told ABS-CBN News Channel’s Headstart on March 24. “The way I look at it, this is a prelude to occupying Julian Felipe Reef like what they did to Mischief Reef in 1995.”

Google Earth image of China-occupied Mischief Reef, taken on Mar. 26, 2021

Although Simularity has not detected any island building or dredging vessels arriving at Whitsun, Derr said her team is monitoring the situation. And she said there has been a “surprising increase” in island-building activities in territories occupied by China and Vietnam, especially in the Spratlys.

The unfolding incident at Whitsun, meanwhile, is animating the Philippines’ diplomatic response. “It’s not an island,” Locsin tweeted. “Should not be made one by reclamation in legally ludicrous attempt to turn it into one generating an [EEZ] that swallows Palawan.”

On March 25, the Philippine military deployed Navy ships to boost its presence in the contested waters. But the ships skirted Whitsun Reef to avoid a flashpoint, the military said in a statement.

The U.S., Japan, Australia and Canada have backed the Philippines, each stating that China’s presence at Whitsun is destabilizing regional and global security. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted: “We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security. The U.S. stands with our ally, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of People’s Republic of China maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef.”

The recent tension at Whitsun comes after the first virtual meeting of the “Quad,” the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, attended by leaders from the U.S., Japan, Australia and India on March 12, and on the heels of the U.S.-China high-level meeting in Alaska on March 19, where the delegates clashed over a range of issues.

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Banner image of China’s fishing flotilla anchored on Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef. Image courtesy of the National Task Force – West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS).

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