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Huge Chinese Flotilla Swarms Whitsun Reef

A line of Chinese maritime militia trawlers moored at Whitsun Reef (PCG)
A line of Chinese maritime militia trawlers moored at Whitsun Reef (PCG / Jay Tarriela)

Published Dec 4, 2023 5:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Philippine Coast Guard has released video evidence of a vast swarm of Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, a low-lying feature in the Spratly Islands. 

As a low-tide elevation, Whitsun Reef is not an island for legal purposes, but it is within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and the Philippines would have governance over its development. Like Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, which have both been covered in sand to create full-scale military bases, Whitsun Reef would be long enough to support a strategic runway if developed. It lies about 50 nm to the west of the nearest Chinese island airbase.

On November 13, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spotted no fewer than 111 Chinese maritime militia trawlers occupying the waters near  Whitsun Reef, replicating a pattern last seen in 2021

The number has now increased to 135 vessels, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Aerial footage of a line of anchored trawlers shows that all had spotless decks and topsides, without the wear and tear of a hard-working fishing vessel, and none had fishing gear or nets visible (below). 

China's maritime militia force operates large, well-equipped trawlers used for "gray zone" operations, like harassing Philippine supply convoys and maintaining a mass presence at geopolitically sensitive locations. While nominally civilian in appearance, these trawlers typically receive military training and heavy government subsidies.

In response to this concerning development, Philippine National Security Adviser Eduardo Año has asked the PCG to conduct a patrol to challenge the "illegal" presence of the Chinese force at the reef. The PCG has dispatched two patrol vessels, BRP Sindangan and BRP Cabra, to visit Whitsun Reef and investigate. 

"It is justified and lawful for Chinese fishing boats to operate or shelter from wind in the area, and the Philippines is in no position to make irresponsible remarks," responded Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin at a press conference Monday.

China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea as its own, and has ignored an unfavorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague issued in 2016. Beijing considers all of the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands to be its own "inherent territory," despite competing claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. 

U.S. Navy sends warship past Second Thomas Shoal

The U.S. Navy regularly challenges extralegal maritime claims, including China's sweeping assertions of control in the South China Sea. In the latest of these actions, the littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords transited past Second Thomas Shoal, a frequent flash point for confrontation between Philippine and Chinese forces. 

“The United States has deliberately disrupted the South China Sea, seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, severely undermined regional peace and stability, and seriously violated international law and basic norms governing international relations,”  said PLA spokesman Col. Tian Junli on Monday. “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and adjacent waters.”

U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement Monday that the Gabrielle Giffords "was conducting routine operations in international waters in the South China Sea, consistent with international law."