Chinese ships patrolling Ayungin, Panatag 'want to be seen' — think tank

Patricia Lourdes Viray - Philstar.com
Chinese ships patrolling Ayungin, Panatag 'want to be seen' � think tank
Philippine Navy's BRP Sierra Madre has been grounded on Second Thomas or Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea since 1999.
CSIS / AMTI via DigitalGlobe

MANILA, Philippines — China Coast Guard vessels patrolling features in the South China Sea appear to want to be seen, a Washington-based think tank said.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) observed that CCG vessels near Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal) and Panatag (Scarborough Shoal) have been broadcasting their automatic identification system (AIS).

"CCG vessels elsewhere in the South China Sea often do not broadcast AIS or do so only when entering and leaving port. But those patrolling Luconia Shoals, Second Thomas Shoal, and, to a lesser degree, Scarborough Shoal appear to broadcast far more frequently," AMTI reported.

According to the report, one CCG ship was broadcasting its position at Ayungin Shoal for 215 days while another one was positioned at Scarborough Shoal for 162 days.

The think tank noted that military and law enforcement vessels have discretion on when and where to broadcast their AIS contrary to commercial vessels over 300 tons that are required to do so to avoid collision.

Chinese vessels patrolling these features in the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea, are mostly Shucha II and Zhaolai classes, which are largely only armed with water cannons and small arms.

Aside from the Ayungin and Panatag Shoals, the CCG also patrols Luconia Shoal in the South China Sea located off the coast of Malaysia's Sarawak state.

These CCG vessels, however, are larger than the law enforcement or most navy ships of their neighbors, such as the Philippines and Malaysia.

"This makes them ideal for operations that might involve threatening collisions and, if necessary, shouldering other vessels to drive them away without using lethal force," the AMTI said.

'Routine, highly visible Chinese presence'

Based on its AIS signal, China's Shicha II-class Haijing 3308 has been patroling Ayungin, Panatag and Luconia Shoals in the past year. This ship has also been involved in the harassment of Vietnamese oil and gas operations in the South China Sea.

This CCG ship has been using Beijing's facilities at Subi Reef, one of the "big three" islands in the Spratlys.

"This patrol pattern highlights an important CCG objective in the South China Sea—to create a routine, highly visible Chinese presence at key sites over which Beijing claims sovereignty but does not have any permanent facilities," the AMTI said.

The AMTI noted that the CCG's presence near Ayungin Shoal, where the Philippine Navy's BRP Sierra Madre is grounded, is "far from being unusual."

The deployment of CCG 3305 around Ayungin Shoal in May was part of a regular pattern of near-constant CCG patrols near BRP Sierra Madre. CSIS/AMTI

The Department of National Defense reported that a CCG vessel with bow number 3305 blocked three Philippine civilian vessels on a resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre personnel in May. CCG 3305's sister ships Haijing 3307 and Haijing 3306 were also spotted in the area in July and August, respectively.

CCG vessels patrolling Panatag Shoal broadcast their AIS frequently compared to when they are at Ayungin Shoal or Luconia Shoal as Beijing has established control over the traditional fishing ground off the coast of Zambales province.

"This might explain why the CCG vessels which frequently patrol around the shoal do not feel the same need to broadcast their position as a declaration of sovereignty, though they also do not necessarily bother to shut off their transceivers either," the report read.

The AMTI warned that as China seems to maintain semi-permanent patrols in these areas, other claimant states may "eventually accede to its de facto control of those areas."

"And if that strategy succeeds at Luconia and Second Thomas (as it arguably already has at Scarborough), it will serve as a compelling blueprint for extending Chinese administration across other reefs and shoals," it said.

Malacañang recently objected to China's blocking of Philippine vessels' resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal.

"Syempre objectionable 'yun... Nagdadala lang pala ng pagkain bakit naman ibla-block," presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a press briefing Monday.

(Of course, that is objectionable... They were just bringing food. Why would you block them?)

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