Commercial satellite imagery shows that Chinese vessels have been returning in increasing numbers to Whitsun Reef, where hundreds of its ships gathered earlier this year, prompting a diplomatic dispute between China and the Philippines.
Planet Labs images from Monday and preceding days show dozens of ships near the reef, which lies in the northern part of Union Banks in the disputed South China Sea. Manila says the reef, which it calls Julian Felipe, lies within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but China and Vietnam also make separate claims to it.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) based in Washington D.C. said Monday that most of the ships are more than 50 meters in length, suggesting they are likely to be Chinese fishing vessels as Vietnamese ships are usually much smaller.
AMTI, which follows the ships’ movements closely, also said that they appear to belong to China’s growing maritime militia since they show no evidence of fishing.
In a report on Oct. 22, the think-tank said that “the number of vessels visible in satellite imagery (in Whitsun Reef) has been rising over the past three months”.
About 40 ships were spotted in August in the northern half of Union Banks, which includes Whitsun Reef, but the number had increased to more than 150 in mid-October, AMTI said. That includes some Vietnamese coastguard and fishing vessels, but the vast majority of the ships are Chinese fishing vessels, it added.
The latest imagery recorded on Monday suggested the ships remained in the area and some had even moved closer to Whitsun Reef.
The Philippines has yet to say anything about this new development.
Whitsun Reef is located 175 nautical miles west Palawan Island in the Philippines and 638 nautical miles from China’s Hainan Island.
Manila protested strongly in March this year when its military reported that early that month, hundreds of Chinese ships were mooring at Whitsun Reef. On March 22, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest demanding that China withdraw its “maritime militia” vessels from what it calls the West Philippine Sea.
China denied the reports, saying Chinese ships were just fishing vessels seeking shelter from rough weather conditions.
The standoff continued well into April with the Philippines lodging more diplomatic protests against Chinese “incursions” into its EEZ. By the end of May, 100 diplomatic notes had been filed.
The number of Chinese vessels reduced substantially afterward but Philippine media reported that in mid-June, it increased again to more than 200 in the Union Banks including Whitsun Reef.
China claims ‘historical rights’ to most of the South China Sea despite protests from neighboring countries. Beijing has deployed an increasing number of People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia ships in disputed waters. These are ostensibly fishing vessels, although they do not engage in fishing but instead 'fly the flag' for Beijing in disputed waters without an overt display of military force that would draw international condemnation.
Several countries including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan and Australia spoke in support of the Philippines in the Whitsun incident.
In another development, Vietnam appears to be continuing construction work on Pearson Reef in the Spratly Islands.
Vietnam has occupied the reef since 1978 and has reclaimed about six acres of land there.
RFA was the first media outlet to report on new construction and land-filling activities on Pearson Reef on Oct. 20, based on satellite imagery obtained that day.
Planet Labs imagery taken on Oct. 30 and Oct. 31 show further developments, with what appears to be dredging work leaving a long ‘tail’ of turbulence and sediment at the southern tip of the reef.
Most of the landfill on Pearson was done before 2014 but there seems to be renewed efforts to strengthen the reclaimed reef.
“Vietnam is clearly dredging a deeper channel to allow easier access to its facility,” said Greg Poling, AMTI’s director.
“Vietnam has done this at most of its larger facilities now,” he added.
Vietnam has 49 or 51 outposts spread across 27 features, AMTI says, adding that there is evidence of reclamation at 10 of the features totalling over 120 acres of new land by 2016.
Vietnamese experts say their country only carries out works to prevent erosion and landslides in order to protect the features but not to expand nor change the structures of islands under its control.