China deployed a large paramilitary force in the South China Sea late last year in an apparent response to the ongoing construction by the Philippines on Pagasa (Thitu) Island, new satellite images showed.
The Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) on Thursday said a handful of Chinese vessels had operated in the area between Zamora (Subi) Reef and Pagasa since July 2018.
“But their numbers increased to at least 24 on Dec. 3, just before the current construction operations began. Their numbers [reached] a high of 95 on Dec. 20 before dropping to 42 by Jan. 26,” Amti said.
The report said the fishing boats generally anchored between 3.7 and 10 kilometers west of Pagasa, while Chinese naval and coast guard ships operated slightly farther away.
China’s ‘cabbage strategy’
“This deployment is consistent with prior examples of China’s ‘cabbage strategy,’ which employs concentric layers of fishing, law enforcement and naval vessels around contested areas,” the report said.
Amti has said that these vessels, which intimidate other claimants in the South China Sea and do not actually fish, were part of China’s maritime militia.
“The fishing vessels display all the hallmarks of belonging to China’s maritime militia, including having no gear in the water that would indicate fishing activity and disabling their [identification] transceivers to hide their activities,” the report said.
Biggest PH-occupied island
Pagasa is the biggest of the nine Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys, inhabited by about a hundred civilians and a small detachment of troops.
In a satellite image taken on Dec. 20, a People’s Liberation Army Navy Jianghu-class frigate and a Chinese Coast Guard Zhaoduan-class cutter were seen near Pagasa Island.
The Philippine Navy frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz was also seen southeast of Pagasa.
“The … reduction of the militia presence, suggests Chinese forces have settled into a pattern of monitoring and intimidation after their initial large deployment failed to convince Manila to halt construction,” Amti said.
The report also said that the Philippines was working on a facility upgrade on Pagasa that was “more ambitious” than the construction of a beaching ramp.
It said images revealed “excavators depositing sand over an area of … more than 3.2 hectares or 32,000 square meters.”
“Once completed, the Philippines will have created 3.2 ha of reclaimed land in the Spratlys, compared to about 48 by Vietnam and 130 by China,” the report said.
But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana maintained that the reclamation work on Pagasa was not as extensive as Amti claimed. —WITH A REPORT FROM JEANNETTE I. ANDRADE
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