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Chinese Vessels Enter Philippine-Controlled Reef in South China Sea

Maritime militia vessel
A Chinese maritime militia vessel in Second Thomas Shoal's lagoon (AFP)

Published Dec 17, 2023 4:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

Chinese forces have ratcheted up "gray zone" pressure tactics one more notch at Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, a longtime flashpoint in the contest over control of the Spratly Islands. Last week, an unprecedented number of Chinese maritime militia vessels were spotted in the reef's inner lagoon, making their presence known in an area under Philippine governance. 

According to Stanford University's SeaLight initiative, 11 Chinese vessels could be seen by satellite inside the lagoon last Monday. According to SeaLight, the Chinese vessels that participate in recurring blockades at Second Thomas Shoal typically operate out of nearby Chinese bases, commuting to and from the shoal when required to harass a Philippine supply convoy. 

"It's quite rare to see PRC vessels enter the shoal's interior at all, but 11 is certainly the highest number we've yet observed at SeaLight. In fact, it may be unprecedented," the organization said. 

None of the 11 visible vessels within the reef were broadcasting AIS. 27 other Chinese ships were operating outside the reef and were visible on AIS, SeaLight said. 

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) confirmed that five Chinese maritime militia vessels remained inside the lagoon as of December 13. 

According to the AFP, China has been ramping up on an escalatory pathway over the past several months, adding low-speed rammings, water cannons and ultraloud "sound cannons" to its portfolio of harassment techniques in the Spratly Islands. Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, the head of AFP Western Command, said that these gray zone tactics are intended to send a message while still falling short of an armed attack, and he warned that he expects more escalation ahead. 

"We expect more coercive action from China," said Carlos, speaking to CNN Philippines. "Next after the water cannon is probably ramming and also they will attempt to board our vessel, which is something that we will not allow them to do."

He warned that Philippine maritime forces have the legal authority to enforce Philippine law within areas of their jurisdiction, and can pursue board-and-search operations if required.