Philippines Sends Fighters to Monitor China's Maritime Militia Buildup

philippine star
Maritime militia vessels lined up at Union Banks, March 7 (NTF-WPS)

Published Mar 29, 2021 12:20 AM by The Maritime Executive

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced Saturday that he has dispatched military aircraft on daily overflight missions to monitor a flotilla of more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef, a contested land feature in the Spratly Islands. 

"We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines. There will be an increased presence of the Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard ships to conduct sovereignty patrols and protect our fishermen in the West Philippine Sea," said Lorenzana. "The PAF deploys an element of AS-211 jet aircraft every day with the same mission."

The AS-211 is a small trainer jet manufactured by SIAI-Marchetti. In Philippine service, it has been upgraded with optical sights and a single .50 caliber machine gun for a secondary role as a light fighter.

According to Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, chief of the Philippine Navy, the corvette BRP Ramon Alcaraz and the patrol vessel BRP Conrado Yap have been deployed for sovereignty patrols in the region. He said that two newly-built missile frigates, the BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna, will join them as soon as they are ready to deploy. 

“It is now up to the operational commanders on the operational employment of these vessels,” Bacordo told the Philippine Star. “No one is more suitable than the U.S. for the label of militarization and jeopardizing freedom of navigation,”

According to the Philippine military, China has deployed about 220 maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef, the largest of several contested land features at Union Banks in the Spratly Islands. Surveillance photos provided by the Philippine government show long lines of the quasi-military "fishing boats" rafted together on site. China has claimed that the giant fleet is sheltering from foul weather, though conditions appear benign. 

China has pushed back against accusations (particularly from the United States) nthat it is engaging in a military buildup in the South China Sea. 

“The label of militarization in South China Sea cannot be pinned on China. China is not the first to carry out construction activities and deploy necessary facilities on islands and reefs in the South China Sea," said Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunyua on Thursday.