AN AERIAL VIEW of what Philippine Coast Guard alleges were Chinese vessels, manned by Chinese maritime militia, loitering within the vicinity of Thitu Island, one of nine features occupied by the Philippines in Spratly Islands, in the disputed South China Sea, March 9, 2023. — REUTERS

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and John Victor D. Ordoñez, Reporters

ALMOST 200 Chinese militia ships were present near disputed areas of the South China Sea on any given day last year, or a 35% increase, a United States think tank said.

“The data show that China’s militia is as active as ever,” the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said in a report released on Feb. 28. “An average of 195 militia ships were seen across these features on any given day in 2023, an increase of 35% from AMTI’s last observation of the militia over a 12-month period in 2021-2022.”

It said more than 180 militia ships were spotted at Mischief Reef, which the Philippines calls Panganiban, from July 2023 “after only a minimal presence in the months prior.”

The think tank used satellite imagery of 10 features in the waterway that were frequented by Chinese militia ships.

While the reason for the increase of militia presence at Mischief Reef — from the previous year’s peak of only 37 vessels — is unclear, it is unrelated to Chinese attempts to block Philippine resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal, AMTI said.

“While it is true that the militia vessels seen active at Second Thomas Shoal 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.”

Mischief Chief is 37 kilometers away from Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines grounded a World War II-era ship named BRP Sierra Madre in 1999 to serve as an outpost for Filipino troops. The Chinese Coast Guard has been blocking Manila’s resupply missions to the rusting ship, firing water cannons at much smaller and slower Philippine vessels.

The think tank said only a minority of the boats at Mischief Reef were the professional type seen supporting Chinese efforts to block Philippine missions to Second Thomas Shoal, adding that “the peak occurred months before militia counts during those missions began to rise.”

Like last year, a notable dip in militia numbers across the South China Sea occurred in late December and lasted through mid-February “as many ships likely headed home for the holidays.”

The think tank said the Union Banks, 230 kilometers west of the Philippine coast, was a “preferred anchorage” as Chinese militia ships — especially the “Spratly Backbone fleet” of civilian ships that are subsidized by China to operate in disputed areas but seldom engage with foreign vessels —  continued to dominate Hughes and Whitsun Reef. 

“A persistent militia presence was also maintained near China’s outpost at Gaven Reef, and smaller groups could be seen at the reefs east of Philippine-occupied Thitu and at Iroquois Reef,” it added.

It said a “different pattern of activity was on display” during tensions at Second Thomas Shoal in 2023. “There, purpose-built professional militia ships from the Qiong Sansha Yu fleet that operate out of Hainan routinely worked with the China Coast Guard to block Philippine resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre.”

The Philippines under President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. has been exposing what it call’s China’s bullying at sea, embedding journalists in resupply missions within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

AMTI said the contrast between the relatively low militia presence at Second Thomas Shoal and the intensity of operations during resupply missions indicates that “professional militia ships stand ready to support China Coast Guard operations at short notice at any point of friction.”

Scarborough Shoal has been the focus of Philippine government missions in the South China Sea this month, as the country seeks to ensure Filipino fishermen’s access to the low-tide elevation, which is locally called Bajo de Masinloc.

Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tristan Tarriela last month said the Philippines’ transparency campaign in the South China Sea would likely focus soon on food security.

The shoal is 240 kilometers west of the Philippine main island Luzon and is nearly 900 kilometers from Hainan, the nearest major Chinese landmass.

“With recent incidents at Scarborough Shoal, it may be that the traditionally low militia presence there gives way to increased numbers of professional militia as interactions with Philippine vessels increase,” AMTI said.

Another US-based think tank last week said two Chinese research vessels were loitering around Benham Rise, an extinct volcanic ridge located in the Philippine Sea.

The research vessels that left Longxue Island in Guangzhou on Feb. 26 and were “loitering east of Luzon in the northeast corner” of Philippine Rise, Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation fellow Raymond M. Powell said last Friday.

The Philippine Navy on Sunday confirmed the report and said the vessels had left the Philippine EEZ, as of 3 p.m. on Saturday.

The Philippine Navy on Sunday was set to launch an air surveillance flight over the resource-rich area located east of Northern Luzon.

Now outside the Philippine EEZ, the vessels “seem to have resumed their progress further east,” Mr. Powell told BusinessWorld in an X message.

Meanwhile, Mr. Powell said President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s recent vow to protect every square inch of the country’s territory sends a clear signal to China that the Philippines would not allow itself to be bullied in the South China.

“The most important message President Marcos sent is that he has no intention of letting Beijing push him into concessions in the West Philippine Sea,” he said in an X message.

“China took a very aggressive posture last year in the face of the Philippines’ assertive transparency campaign in the hope that Marcos would lose his nerve and back down.”

During his speech to Australia’s Parliament on Feb. 29, Mr. Marcos said the Philippines is firm in defending its sovereignty.

The Philippine president is trying to rally international opinion in the Philippines’ favor regarding the South China Sea, Mr. Powell said.

Before leaving for Australia last week, Mr. Marcos told reporters the presence of Chinese vessels in the waterway is “worrisome.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China would continue taking actions to protect its maritime rights and interests.

“We express grave concern over the Philippines’ recent activities in the South China Sea that infringe on China’s sovereignty and will continue to take necessary measures to firmly safeguard our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and keep the South China Sea peaceful and stable,” she told a news briefing.

“Whatever hope China may have in terms of managing the row discreetly with the Philippines has already evaporated,” Lucio B. Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “China will have more managed expectations.”

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion in annual ship commerce. Its claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

A United Nations-backed tribunal in 2016 said China’s claims were illegal.

Last week, the Philippine Senate approved on third and final reading a bill that seeks to set up maritime zones and territories in the South China Sea.

“China may become more unyielding with Manila on the flashpoint,” Mr. Pitlo said. “Expect more fireworks in terms of a heated exchange of barbs and risky sea incidents.”