China stepped up patrols in WPS in 2022, AIS data show

The BRP Sierra Madre during the last re-provisioning of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command for troops aboard the partly sunken Navy ship at the Ayungin Shoal.

CHINA did not only sustain but even stepped up its patrols in the South China Sea last year, including in the waters of the two features owned or claimed by the Philippines, but which it is also disputing.

Beijing’s maritime patrols in the regional waters, nearly all of which China is aggressively claiming under its nine-dash line, was documented by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) by analyzing the automatic identification system (AIS) data of commercial provider Marine Traffic.

“China’s coast guard presence in the South China Sea is more robust than ever,” declared the AMTI of the US-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which claimed the patrols were backed by the presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels in the Southeast Asian waters.

Disguised as civilian ships, the sturdy and hull-reinforced Chinese maritime militia vessels are paramilitary ships, which the US has declared an integral part of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and are not immune to attacks in case a direct confrontation occurs between the US and China.

“The China Coast Guard (CCG) maintained near-daily patrols at key features across the South China Sea in 2022. Together with the ubiquitous presence of its maritime militia, China’s constant coast guard patrols show Beijing’s determination to assert control over the vast maritime zone within its claimed nine-dash line,” the AMTI report said.

AMTI’s analysis of AIS data from Marine Traffic for the year 2022 focused on the five features that were most frequented by Chinese patrols, and these were the Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), Luconia Shoals, Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc), Vanguard Bank and Thitu Island.

China has been exercising de facto control over the Scarborough Shoal near Zambales after it wrested control of the feature from the Philippines in 2012 and it was conducting regular patrol over the waters of the Second Thomas Shoal although it was still being guarded by Filipino troops who were stationed aboard the partly-sunken BRP Sierra Madre.

On January 9 this year, the Chinese Coast Guard drove away a Filipino fishing boat from the waters of Ayungin Shoal despite China’s assurance during President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ‘s state visit to Beijing that it will not impede Filipino fishermen’s activities in the waters that it was contesting with the Philippines.

Comparing the data of 2022 to the year 2020, the AMTI report said Chinese patrols in Second Thomas Shoal increased to 279 from 232, while at the Scarborough Shoal, it also rose to 344 from 287.

“Data on the reefs surrounding Philippine-held Thitu Island [Pagasa Island] was not collected in previous analyses, but CCG [China Coast Guard] vessels were on site 208 days over the past year. At some features, especially Scarborough Shoal, multiple CCG vessels were present simultaneously,” the AMTI said.

The increased presence of Chinese patrols in the maritime waters of the Philippines, which Beijing disputes, were also used to harass and stop the country’s oil explorations.

“For instance, China convinced the Philippines to shut down renewed exploration of Reed Bank in April when the CCG 5203 shadowed a contracted survey vessel,” the AMTI report said.

“The CCG also worked with maritime militia at Second Thomas Shoal to obstruct resupply missions to Philippine marines stationed on the shoal multiple times throughout 2022. And in another publicized incident, Chinese and Philippine law enforcement came face to face at Thitu Island in November when CCG cut the tow line of a Philippine vessel removing Chinese rocket debris from waters west of the island,” it added.

Given the constant presence of Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels in maritime waters that China disputes in Southeast Asia, the AMTI declared that “confrontations” are “inevitable.”

China’s nine-dash line also intrudes into the waters of other countries in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam and Indonesia, the latter being the only country in the region that is challenging Chinese vessels and their illegal activities in its waters.

Beijing’s expansive claims creep into Indonesia’s Natuna waters.

Image credits: Public Affairs Office, Naval Forces West


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