Report notes rise in Chinese militia vessels in South China Sea

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Report notes rise in Chinese militia vessels in South China Sea
This photo taken on February 15, 2024, shows an aerial view of Chinese vessel identified by the Philippine Coast Guard as “maritime militia” (upper C) , Philippine fishing boats and BRP Datu Tamblot (C) during a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR)-led mission to bring supplies and assistance to the fishermen over Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea.
AFP / Jam Sta. Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — The number of Chinese maritime militia vessels around key features in the South China Sea increased by 35% in 2023, a Washington-based think tank said, as Beijing bolstered its presence in the disputed waters.

An analysis by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) based on satellite imagery found an average of 195 Chinese militia ships around nine features in the sea on any given day last year.

“The data shows that China’s militia is as active as ever,” AMTI said in its report released last week. 

AMTI said the increase in militia vessels was accompanied by a “dramatic shift” in ships to Mischief Reef, also known as Panganiban Reef, in the summer of 2023, with over 180 militia vessels observed there from July.

AMTI said the reason for the increase—which it described as an “anomaly”—was unclear. 

“While it is true that the militia vessels seen active at Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin) typically operate out of Mischief, deploying to Second Thomas in response to Philippine resupply missions, the summer surge at Mischief appears mostly unrelated to those efforts,” the think tank said. 

It added that only a minority of the boats at Panganiban Reef were professional vessels observed supporting Chinese blockades, and that the peak in vessels occurred before the number of militia ships during those missions started to rise. 

According to AMTI, militia ships from the “Qiong Sansha Yu” fleet that operate out of Hainan “routinely worked with the China Coast Guard to physically oppose” Philippine resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, the military outpost near Ayungin. 

Beyond Panganiban Reef, AMTI identified Hughes Reef and Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun, as having the largest consistent militia vessel presence.

This indicated that Union Bank remained a “preferred anchorage, especially for the ‘Spratly Backbone fleet’ of civilian ships that are subsidized to operate in disputed areas but seldom engage with foreign vessels.”

The think tank also noted a persistent militia presence near China’s outpost at Gaven reef and smaller groups east of Philippine-occupied Pag-Asa Island (Thitu) and Rozul Reef (Iroquois). 

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, and has ignored a landmark ruling that its assertions have no legal basis. 

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