Chinese fishing boats sail in the South China Sea, seen here on August 16, 2020.

VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images

The Philippines recently drastically stepped up patrols in the South China Sea and have come into closer contact with the Chinese Coast Guard, according to ship tracking data.

Between March 1 and May 25, 13 law enforcement or military vessels from the Philippines visited waters around the embattled Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal at least 57 times, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said this week.

“This has been a significant increase over the past 10 months … when tracking 3 vessels making a total of 7 visits to controversial features,” the report reads. It has been suggested that this surge in patrols in the Philippines “is beyond anything seen in recent years”.

The South China Sea was a regional hotspot in Asia that involved territorial disputes between some countries and China. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam are among the countries that claim portions of the waterway, but China sees much of the area – including the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal – as part of its territory.

In contrast, Chinese ships work as watch posts, staying in specific spots for weeks and usually only leaving when a replacement has arrived to continue the watch.

Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

The AMTI, which is part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, indicated that the location of patrols in the Philippines has also changed.

Prior to March, ships traveled “almost exclusively” from the Philippines to and from the country’s largest outpost in the Spratlys, Thitu Island.

“Recent patrols included the second Thomas Shoal, occupied by the Philippines but patrolled daily by China, the Whitsun where the youngest militia swarm was discovered, the vacant Sabina Shoal near the second Thomas and Scarborough Shoal, where China has maintained a constant patrol presence since 2012, “AMTI said.

The report reviewed tracking data from commercial provider Marine Traffic, as well as images from satellite companies Maxar and Planet Labs.

“Oversized and outdated”

AMTI outlined an incident in May when Chinese Coast Guard ships chased or chased coast guard vessels from the Philippines that are “almost always oversized and obsolete”.

On May 19, the Philippines sent four ships into contested coastal seas, but were hit by two Chinese ships. At least one Filipino ship was said to have been “pursued” by the Chinese.

One of the Chinese Coast Guard ships followed the Filipino ship MCS 3005 as it sailed around one side of Scarborough.

The other Chinese ship was chasing a separate Filipino ship, the Habagat, on the other side before “peeling off” a third and larger Filipino ship called the Gabriela Silang, AMTI said.

The Philippines seem determined to hold their own, but the country’s patrols “pale in comparison” with the intensity of the “near permanent presence of the Coast Guard and militia” in China, the report said.

Manila’s ships go on “staggered tours” and spend a day or two on contested features.

“In contrast, Chinese ships work as watch posts, staying in specific locations for weeks and usually don’t leave until a replacement has arrived to continue the watch,” AMTI said.

“It is unclear whether the Philippines will continue their current patrol pace and how China will react,” the report said. “Although Manila’s combination of more public protest and greater presence appears to have had some success in dispersing Chinese ships on Whitsun and Sabina Shoal, this has no bearing on the total number of Chinese ships operating in disputed waters.”

Manila “draws attention and international condemnation to China’s activities, particularly on the militia front,” AMTI said.