China maintaining maritime militia in Spratlys, says expert

Patricia Lourdes Viray - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines — What appears to be Chinese fishing vessels stationed on a Manila-claimed reef in the West Philippine Sea are actually paramilitary forces, according to a maritime expert.

Gregory Poling, director of Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, bared a satellite image of Subi Reef with about 200 boats in its lagoon last August.

"Now I mentioned the maritime militia, paramilitary forces, however we would like to categorize them because I seem to have an impression... that this is a relatively minor part of the Chinese arsenal and we are at a mistake," Poling said in security forum in Makati City last Friday.

The maritime expert noted that Beijing has established 24/7 constant presence of naval and coast guard vessels, as well as maritime militia, in the South China Sea in the previous years.

China has been claiming indisputable sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea. It has refused to acknowledge a July 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated its nine-dash line claim over the contested waterway.

Poling proceeded to explain that none of the supposed Chinese fishing boats on Subi Reef are actually used for fishing as they all appear to be maritime militia.

"We never see any evidence that they are doing anything than intimidating the neighbors," Poling said.

He added that the Chinese boats often left the lagoon and stayed in the area near Pag-asa Island for days and weeks to intimidate Filipino resupply missions in the region.

In May, opposition Rep. Gary Alejano (Magdalo party-list) said he had information that Chinese navy personnel harassed Filipino troops conducting a resupply mission in Ayungin Shoal.

A chopper of China's navy reportedly hovered over a rubber boat that the Philippine Navy launched. The Philippine military maintains a small presence on BRP Sierra Madre, which has deliberately ran aground on Ayungin Shoal, which is approximately 230 kilometers from Pag-asa Island.

Earlier this year, the Philippine government started the long overdue repair of a crumbled runway on Pag-asa Island, one of the largest features in the Spratly Islands. The rehabilitation of facilities on the island is expected to be completed by next year, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

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