China Coast Guard increased patrols in 2022 – US think tank
MANILA, Philippines — The China Coast Guard (CCG) maintained near-daily patrols at key features across the South China Sea last year, including two Philippine-held outposts, according to a new report by a Washington-based think tank.
“China’s coast guard presence in the South China Sea is more robust than ever. Together with the ubiquitous maritime militia, CCG patrols show Beijing’s determination to assert control over the vast maritime zone within its claimed nine-dash line,” the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) said on Monday.
Patrol days at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, which has a Philippine outpost, increased from 232 days in 2020 to 279 in 2022. Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a traditional fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, saw 344 patrol days from 287.
Data on reefs surrounding the Philippine-held Pag-asa (Thitu) Island was not collected in previous analyses, but CCG vessels were on site 208 days last year, Amti said.
The CCG also stepped up patrols with 142 days in 2020 to 310 days in 2022 in the Vanguard Bank off Vietnam, a major site of Vietnamese oil and gas development.
Luconia Shoals, near important Malaysian oil and gas operations, saw 316 patrol days from 279.
‘Likely even higher’
The observed patrols totaled 1,703 ship days, although Amti’s automatic identification system (AIS) data analysis doesn’t tell the whole story of CCG’s influence at sea.
“The incomplete nature of AIS data means that these numbers are likely even higher. Some CCG vessels are not observable on commercial AIS platforms, either because their AIS transceivers are disabled or are not detectable by satellite AIS receivers,” it said.
“As Southeast Asian claimants continue to operate in the Spratly Islands in 2023, the constant presence of CCG and maritime militia makes future confrontations all but inevitable,” Amti said, adding that CCG’s enforcing Beijing’s territorial claims extend to the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines last month raised concerns over the swarming of Chinese militia vessels in Palawan waters and the reported new reclamation activities in Spratly Islands’ unoccupied features.
Early this month, a CCG vessel drove away Filipino fishermen in Ayungin Shoal.
US defense chief’s visit
The South China Sea will be a dominant topic of discussion when US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with President Marcos on Thursday.
“We’ll be actively talking about what we can do together to address what has been a pretty notable period of harassment and coercion recently in the South China Sea,” a senior defense official speaking on background said in a Pentagon statement.
He added: “We’ve been very clear [that] our treaty commitments do apply in the South China Sea. An armed attack on Philippine forces, vessels or aircraft would be relevant to [our] defense treaty commitments.”
Austin will also discuss speeding up the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) allowing Washington’s expanded access to the country’s key military bases, along with additional locations expected to be finalized.
The first five agreed locations during the 2014 Edca signing were Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan and Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.
Austin is on a two-nation tour in the Indo-Pacific this week, starting in South Korea on Monday.
It will be his second visit to the Philippines. During his visit in July 2021, the Philippines fully restored its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, following then President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to terminate it after the US denied a visa to Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.
The VFA governs US presence on Philippine soil, which officials said was crucial amid China’s assertive behavior in the region. Several military agreements between the two countries are dependent on the VFA.
Last year, Austin also met with now resigned acting defense secretary Jose Faustino Jr. in Hawaii, where Taiwan and South China Sea contingencies were the major topics of discussions.
Second US visit
Austin’s trip to Manila comes as the government prepares for Marcos’ second US visit.
Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez told the Inquirer the visit is “still in the planning stage” and is tentatively set in April.
“[It is] still being worked out and [we are] identifying dates,” he said.
Marcos’ first US visit was in September. He attended the United Nations General Assembly where he also held bilateral talks with US President Joe Biden.
“I cannot see the Philippines in the future without having the United States as a partner,” Marcos told Biden, adding: “We are your partners, we are your allies, we are your friends. And in like fashion, we have always considered the United States our partner, our ally, and our friend.”
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