Data Shows Philippines Dramatically Increasing Patrols of South China Sea

The Philippines has recently significantly stepped up patrols in the South China Sea and established closer ties with the Chinese Coast Guard, according to ship tracking data.

The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said this week that 13 law enforcement ships or warships from the Philippines made at least 57 visits to the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal (known in China as Huangyan Island) from March 1 to May 25.

The report said, “This is a significant increase from the previous 10 months …… when three ships were tracked and a total of seven visits were made to the disputed waters.” The report noted that the increase in Philippine patrols “goes beyond what has been seen in recent years.”

The South China Sea has been a regional flashpoint in Asia, involving territorial disputes between a number of countries and China. The Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam are among the countries claiming parts of the shipping lanes, but China considers much of the region (including the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal) to be part of its territory.

AMTI of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that the location of Philippine patrols has also changed.

Until March, ships from the Philippines “almost exclusively” traveled to and from the country’s largest outpost in the Spratlys, Nakai Island.

“But recent patrols include Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by the Philippines but patrolled daily by China, Whitsunday Reef, where recent militia gatherings have been detected, Sabina Shoal, which is uninhabited near Second Thomas, and Scarborough Shoal, where China maintains a permanent patrol. It has been in place since 2012.”

The Philippines appears determined to assert itself, but its patrols are “dwarfed” by the intensity of China’s “almost permanent coast guard and militia presence,” according to the report.

Manila’s ships are beginning to “plod out” and stay in the disputed waters for a day or two.

AMTI said, “By contrast, the Chinese ships act as sentinels, staying at the target location for weeks at a time, usually leaving only when replacements arrive.”

The report said, “It is unclear whether the Philippines will continue its current patrol pace and how China will react.” The report said, “However, while more public protests and greater involvement by Manila appear to have had some success in spreading the word that Chinese vessels are on Whitson Reef and Sabina Shoal, it has not affected the total number of Chinese vessels operating in the disputed waters.”

AMTI said, “Manila is drawing more attention to and international condemnation of Chinese activities, particularly in relation to the militia.”