Chinese militia presence slowed down Pag-asa Island repairs — think tank

Patricia Lourdes Viray - Philstar.com
Chinese militia presence slowed down Pag-asa Island repairs � think tank
This Oct. 3, 2019 satellite photo shows the repair of the runway and the construction of a new beaching ramp on Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.
CSIS / AMTI via Maxar Technologies

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 2:14 p.m.) — The continuous presence of Chinese militia ships near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea likely played a role in the delay of repairs on the island, a Washington-based think tank reported.

Philippine officials, however, blamed severe sea conditions due to stormy weather as the cause of delay of construction projects on one of the largest features in the Spratly Islands.

Based on satellite imagery from PlanetLabs collected between Dec. 2, 2018 and March 2, 2020, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that an average of 18 Chinese ships are around Pag-asa Island each day.

"These counts indicate the minimum number of Chinese ships present on a given day. Many vessels likely went uncounted because they were under cloud cover or outside the frame of the images," the report read.

The think tank counted vessels within a 32-square-nautical-mile area covering the reefs and sandbars to the west of the island but satellite images with less than 50% of the target area or with more than 50% cloud were not included

Pag-asa Island repairs provoked China

The Philippines' "more ambitious dredging and landfill work" seemingly provoked China as it has maintained its presence around Pag-asa Island ever since the project started.

Satellite photo from June 2019 showed two barges pulling up to the island to bring sand and materials for the dilapidated runway.

Imagery from June 6, 2019, shows two barges pulled up to Thitu. One was offloading sand and materials to fill in the runway—a job that had been on hold for months. The other was offloading supplies at the beaching ramp.
CSIS/AMTI via Maxar Technologies

The image also showed several areas have been dredged and has been cleared of sand for a beaching ramp.

The runway would only be filled with new sand by October 2019, as seen on satellite image from Maxar Technologies.

By February 2020, the repairs on the runway still continue with dredging on the north side of the island almost completed and has been converted into a small harbor.

More recent imagery from February 13 provides an update on this work. The runway repairs are continuing slowly. But most of the dredging to the north is complete and it seems clear that this area is being turned into a small harbor.
CSIS/AMTI via Maxar Technologies

"This should improve the quality of life for [Pag-asa's] civilian fishers, make resupply easier, and facilitate other planned construction like a desalination plant, solar arrays, and improved housing," AMTI said.

The Philippine Navy and law enforcement agencies could also use to small harbor when it deploys vessels in the future, the think tank added.

Chinese boats never went away

In December 2018, Chinese militia ships were deployed around Pag-asa Island in response to the Philippine government's efforts to repair facilities on the island.

Following reports of increased presence of Chinese naval, coast guard and fishing vessels near Pag-asa Island, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called on other countries to respect Philippine sovereignty and "to conduct themselves in a civilized manner."

In April 2019, the Armed Forces of the Philippines confirmed that hundreds of Chinese boats have been loitering in the area and could be monitoring repairs on the island.

Following this development, the Philippine government lodged a diplomatic protest against the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels in the vicinity of Pag-asa Island.

Despite the claims of Special Envoy to China Ramon Tulfo that Beijing had withdrawn its ships early June 2019, the number of Chinese boats grew again by mid-July last year.

"Militia boats have remained near [Pag-asa] nearly every day since. Their numbers surged again in August, September, and December," AMTI reported.

A satellite image collected on Dec. 18, 2019 showed 88 Chinese vessels, which are not fishing, stationed near the island.

This higher-resolution imagery collected by Maxar on Dec. 18, 2019 reveals 88 Chinese vessels loitering near Pag-asa Island.
CSIS/AMTI via Maxar Technologies

"Most are trawlers, and yet they sit stationary, clearly not trawling. A small number are falling net vessels, but they have no gear deployed," the report said.

A China Coast Guard vessel, which was also involved in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, were seen accompanying these ships.

The number of Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island continued to grow through January and February as the military confirmed that they have monitored 136 Chinese vessels in the first two months of this year.

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