Dozens of Chinese ships spotted near Julian Felipe Reef

Satellite Image (Copyright) 2021 Maxar Technologies / Handout Via Reuters

Despite the Philippine government’s protests, Chinese militia warships have returned to Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea, where hundreds of Chinese ships congregated earlier this year.

According to US-funded news site Radio Free Asia, citing commercial satellite photographs from Planet Labs, dozens of Chinese ships were detected near the reef on November 1 and preceding days.

Julian Felipe Reef is located within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. It’s part of the Pagkakaisa (Union) Banks in the West Philippine Sea, which China and Vietnam both claim.

Philippine patrols also saw dozens of ships in October. From October 10 to 16, 151 vessels were seen dispersed around the Pagkakaisa Banks, dropping to 35 vessels the following week.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) in Washington recently reported that the number of Chinese vessels in the area has increased in the last three months.

Satellite imagery from early August indicated an average of 40 vessels in the northern side of Union Banks, including Whitsun Reef. Over 100 vessels had been sighted by September. More so, 150 ships can be spotted on October 17.

AMTI also stated that in comparison to the massing at Whitsun Reef in March, these vessels are more evenly distributed around the northern half of Union Banks, with only a few at Whitsun itself, according to AMTI.It added that while some of the ships were Vietnamese coastguard and fishing boats, the overwhelming bulk were Chinese vessels with a length of at least 50 meters.

Despite patrols by claimants and international uproar, Chinese vessels remained in Philippine waters, according to the same research by the US think tank. The vessels simply move from one feature to the next, but they stay in the area. AMTI said that this is evidence of the Chinese militia’s shell game in the Spratly Islands.

Chinese militia pose as fishing boats, although they aren’t actually fishing. Militias are being utilized to forcefully enforce China’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea, without triggering open conflict. They are officially part of China’s armed forces.

Through its nine-dash line invention, China claims practically the whole West Philippine Sea, but the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has decided against it.

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