China Conducts “Major” Rotation of Ships in West Philippine Sea

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At least 27 Chinese ships were recently monitored in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), indicating a significant maritime militia rotation by Beijing. This development comes just days after the Philippines and China agreed to ease tensions in the region through diplomatic means.

The 27 Qiong Sansha Yu-class ships were spotted south of the Spratly Islands and east of Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag or Scarborough Shoal). These Qiong Sansha Yu-class ships are professional maritime militia vessels operated by the state-owned Sansha Fisheries Development Company. They often work in tandem with the China Coast Guard (CCG) to enforce China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, including the WPS.

Retired United States Air Force Col. Raymond Powell, a maritime security expert, believes that this rotation is a planned transition, allowing other Chinese militia ships, who have been stationed in the area for some time, to return home after a brief overlap period.

The Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea, are located off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Vietnam. This region consists of approximately 45 islands, cays, reefs, and shoals, all of which are occupied by military forces from Malaysia, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Brunei has also claimed an exclusive economic zone in the area.

Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal, is another disputed territory. The Philippines claims it based on the 1734 Velarde map, while Beijing claims it through the disputed nine-dash line. In 2012, China initiated a standoff by using warships against fishing boats, resulting in the effective capture of Bajo de Masinloc by Chinese maritime forces. Prior to that, it was administered by the Philippines as part of its Zambales province.

Last Wednesday, January 17, the Philippines and China held the 8th Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea in Shanghai. During the discussions, both countries engaged in a candid and in-depth exchange of views regarding the situation in the South China Sea.

According to the Chinese foreign ministry, both sides agreed on the importance of maintaining communication and dialogue to ensure maritime peace and stability. They also affirmed their mutual commitment to avoid escalating tensions and expressed their intention to enhance their maritime communication mechanism to handle emergencies effectively. One specific area of concern is the Ren’ai Shoal, also known as Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, where there have been numerous encounters between maritime vessels from Manila and Beijing.

The BRP Sierra Madre, a Philippine Navy vessel deliberately grounded at Ayungin in 1999, is currently manned by Philippine Marine personnel. Philippine ships on routine Rotation and Resupply (RoRe) missions to Sierra Madre have frequently encountered blockades by Chinese vessels.

Last year, the China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels were accused of using lasers and water cannons to hinder Philippine supply boats from completing their missions. China argued that the Philippine government’s continued defiance of a consensus regarding the transportation of large-scale construction materials to BRP Sierra Madre, with the intention of permanently occupying the reef, was the root cause of the incidents in Ayungin.

On Friday, Commo. Jay Tarriela, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesman on the West Philippine Sea, called on China to honor its commitments made during the BCM and to avoid escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Tarriela emphasized the importance of commitment and sincerity, urging China to implement the agreements reached during the discussions.

Despite these recent developments, the situation in the West Philippine Sea remains complex and delicate. The presence of Chinese ships in the area underscores the ongoing disputes and challenges faced by the Philippines and other claimant countries in the region. It highlights the need for continued dialogue and diplomatic efforts to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea.

It is essential for all parties involved to respect international laws and norms, uphold the principles of freedom of navigation and overflight, and work towards a peaceful resolution of the disputes. By doing so, they can foster cooperation and mutual understanding, benefiting not only the countries directly involved but also the international community as a whole.

Source: The Manila Times

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