The Chinese government’s maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea became more frequent even with the raging COVID-19 pandemic, a United States think-tank has reported.
A report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) released last Friday said that the China Coast Guard (CCG) deployed its vessels in Panatag Shoal and Ayungin Shoal almost daily this year.
The AMTI analyzed the Automatic Identification System (AIS) data broadcasted by the CCG vessels which were collected by ship tracker MarineTraffic from Dec. 1, 2019 to Nov. 30, 2020 and found out that one to two vessels have consistently patrolled Panatag Shoal in 287 days out of 366 days.
This was a “substantial” increase compared to last year’s 162 days when the COVID-19 pandemic was still not a thing, the report noted.
Meanwhile, there was “modest increase” in CCG vessels’ broadcasting in Ayungin Shoal where at least one vessel patrolled the area for 232 days, the report added.
Panatag Shoal, also known as Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, is located approximately 120 nautical miles west of Zambales.
Meanwhile, Ayungin Shoal or Second Thomas Shoal lies 105 nautical miles west of Palawan and is considered a part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the Spratly Islands.
Both features are found within the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.
A 2016 tribunal ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in Hague, The Netherlands favored the Philippines in its claims in the South China Sea against China as it invalidated Beijing’s nine-dash line historical claims over the areas.
However, China remains defiant and rejected the ruling as it continuously asserts their presence in the hotly-contested areas.
According to the AMTI report, the stronger presence of Chinese vessels in the disputed territories meant that Beijing wants to continue showing to the rest of the world that it is capable of asserting its claims even while many nations are still grappling with a global pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had no discernible effect on the presence of the China Coast Guard in the South China Sea,” said the AMTI, which is being managed by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“That CCG vessels so frequently broadcast AIS from these reefs, which are not physically occupied by China, suggests that they want to be seen signaling China’s claims,” it emphasized.
It added that China has been “successful” so far in “normalizing its presence” in the disputed waters since other claimant-countries largely refrain from contesting Beijing’s routine patrols.
The Department of National Defense (DND) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have yet to comment on the AMTI report.