Taking advantage of the West’s focus on the war in Ukraine, China is rapidly bolstering its already dominant position in the South China Sea.
Recent reports from Asian and US sources indicate that “fishing boats” of the semi-clandestine China Maritime Militia are currently loitering in the vicinity of six islets in the Spratlys, all of which are claimed by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These are Sabina Shoal, Iroquois Reef, Lankiam Cay, Whitsun Reef, Sandy Cay, and the only one of the Spratlys to support a significant permanent civilian population, the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island.
China is, furthermore, reportedly carrying out construction work on four of the islets. Also, China Coast Guard (CCG) patrol ships have stepped up harassment operations against Philippine Navy (PN) vessels in the South China Sea, with CCG patrol ships 5203 and 5205 maintaining a permanent and proactive presence around the islets.
In November 2022, patrol ship 5203 intercepted a small PN boat that was towing some wreckage from a Chinese Long March rocket that had been launched earlier as part of Beijing’s space programme, and seized the wreckage in the waters off Pag-asa. December 2022 saw patrol ship 5205 unsuccessfully attempt to obstruct a PN-manned boat that was carrying supplies for the Philippine Marine Corps garrison on board the deliberately-grounded ageing landing ship BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal.
Also during December, patrol ship 3303 was involved in a prolonged close-quarters confrontation with the PN frigate BRP Andres Bonifacio near Scarborough Shoal.
In response to these incidents, Manila has recently increased PN and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrols in the area. According to some reports, the national government has also been offering incentives to Filipino fishermen to maintain a presence near Pag-asa.
Manila has also registered a formal protest with Beijing while Washington has issued a statement in support of this protest.
Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.