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Coast guard patrols vital to Chinese control of South China Sea features

PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD FILE PHOTO

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

CHINA’s coast guard was the dominant state force in disputed waters of the South China Sea last year, holding daily patrols at key features including Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines has kept a dilapidated ship as a military outpost since 1999, according to a US think tank.

Its daily patrols “demonstrate the centrality of the CCG in China’s peacetime operations to assert control over its vast claims in the South China Sea,” the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said in a Mar. 29 report, citing automatic transmission system (AIS) data from Marine Traffic and Starboard Maritime Analytics.

Second Thomas Shoal, Luconia Shoals, Scarborough Shoal, Vanguard Bank and Thitu Island were the five features most frequented by Chinese patrols, AMTI said. “In total, patrols observed in 2023 at these five features amounted to 1,652 ship-days.”

It said the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) has slightly shifted its attention away from Vanguard Bank and toward Luconia Shoals and Second Thomas Shoal, where Manila grounded the BRP Sierra Madre 25 years ago to assert its sovereignty.

Second Thomas, which the Philippines calls Ayungin, is 240 kilometers off the coast of Palawan province and is about 900 kilometers from Hainan, the nearest major Chinese landmass.

AMTI said the CCG’s patrols at Second Thomas Shoal increased to 302 in 2023 from 279 a year earlier.

Chinese patrols at Luconia Shoals, near a major cluster of Malaysian oil and gas operations, also increased to 338 from 316.

Meanwhile, CCG patrols in Scarborough Shoal and Thitu Island fell to 311 from 344 and to 206 from 208 days, respectively. Chinese patrol days at Vanguard Bank also fell to 221 last year from 310 a year earlier, AMTI said.

Scarborough and Thitu, which is part of the Spratly Islands, are both within the Philippines’ 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

The numbers are only a baseline “and that the true number of days patrolled by the CCG is likely higher,” AMTI said.

It added that “CCG vessels are not always observable on commercial AIS platforms, either because their transceivers are disabled or not detectable by satellite AIS receivers.”

Second Thomas Shoal was the site of frequent tensions between Manila and Beijing last year, with the Chinese Coast Guard backed by maritime militia ships blocking Philippine resupply missions for troops stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. last week issued an executive order (EO) ordering agencies to boost coordination on maritime security to confront “a range of serious challenges” to territorial integrity and peace, as the sea dispute with China worsens.

The order reorganized the National Coast Watch Council and renamed it to the National Maritime Council.

The new council is part of the countermeasures that the President has vowed to pursue, National Security Council Assistant Director-General Jonathan Malaya told a televised news briefing on Monday.

“Many of our countrymen think that our counter-response or measures are purely military,” he said. “The measures cover [many] dimensions, and this is one aspect of that.”

Fisherfolk group Pamalakaya questioned the creation of the new council, saying it is “redundant and insignificant” because there is already an inter-agency task force handling South China Sea disputes.

“The government agencies belonging to the newly created National Maritime Council are already constitutionally mandated to uphold and protect our national territory and natural resources,” it said in a statement. “Why the need to consolidate these agencies into a council with the sole purpose of maritime security, despite an existing task force with the very same functions?”

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