MANILA, Philippines — Many of the Chinese fishing vessels around the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the Spratlys archipelago are manned by militia and soldiers disguised as fishermen, a defense department insider said yesterday.
“We know for a fact that PLAN has been sending and funding their maritime militia aboard dozens upon dozens of civilian ships in the region disguised as fishermen,” the official said. PLAN stands for People’s Liberation Army-Navy.
The official, who requested anonymity, said deploying dozens of supposedly fishing vessels in or near the exclusive economic zones of Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines is China’s way of boosting its presence and projecting power in the region.
The Chinese started their occupation of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in the early 1990s by building a bamboo hut on stilts, which they claimed was a shelter for fishermen.
Panganiban Reef, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), is now a highly fortified Chinese military base.
Earlier, Beijing announced that it would undertake rehabilitation of damaged areas in the South China Sea.
It was not clear, however, if the growing presence of Chinese vessels in the area was an offshoot of the supposed rehabilitation effort.
“For now, we don’t know why the sudden surge in the presence of Chinese fishing boats in the region,” the defense insider said.
A senior military official said all the Philippines and other Spratlys claimant countries can do is to monitor the presence of the Chinese vessels as they appeared to be civilian boats.
He admitted sightings of gray Chinese ships – likely naval vessels – have become frequent.
China is laying claim to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, citing what it claimed was historical proof.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague ruled on a case filed by the Philippines and invalidated China’s massive claim and reaffirmed Manila’s maritime entitlements.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, in partnership with Vulcan Inc., has released satellite imagery showing the extent of Chinese vessels’ presence in the South China Sea.
Most of the supposedly Chinese boats were concentrated in the lagoons of Zamora (Subi) Reef and Panganiban Reef.
Zamora Reef, now a heavily fortified Chinese military fortress, with runways, naval base and missile emplacements – just like those in Chinese-occupied Panganiban Reef and Kagitingan Reef – is only 12 nautical miles from the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island.
Pag-asa, the second largest islet in the region next only to the Taiwanese-occupied Itu Aba, is one of nine Filipino outposts in the region.
Aside from being a military outpost, the island now serves as the seat of Kalayaan town, a fifth class municipality of the island province of Palawan, with 200 to 300 civilian residents.
The island is undergoing development with the construction of a harbor to allow Philippine Navy cargo ships to bring in and unload construction materials needed for the repair of Rancudo Air Field.