South China Sea: A Chinese ‘Invasion’ Near the Philippines’ Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys?


Recent events near Pag-asa Island raise distressing questions.

Last week, a Philippine lawmaker, Congressman Gary Alejano, released images showing Chinese coast guard, naval, and civilian vessels within a stone’s throw of Pag-asa, or Thitu, Island — a significant Philippine possession in the disputed Spratly group. Pag-asa, which is administered as part of Kalayaan municipality, an archipelagic cluster in the South China Sea, is also claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

Shortly after their release, Alejano’s allegations regarding the presence of Chinese vessels were independently verified by Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI). AMTI’s perusal of satellite imagery acquired on August 13 showed multiple Chinese vessels in the area, including “nine Chinese fishing ships and two naval/law enforcement vessels.” A Philippine fishing boat was also docked at a nearby unoccupied sandbar.

The incident remains highly murky, with neither Chinese authorities nor the Philippine government having officially commented on the claims levied by Alejano. Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio described the events underway near Pag-asa as an “invasion of Philippine territory” on Saturday, calling on Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano and President Rodrigo Duterte to step in.

One of the features under question in the area is the unoccupied Sandy Cay. Carpio noted that Sandy Cay, an unoccupied sand bar, “is a Philippine land territory that is being seized (to put it mildly), or being invaded (to put it frankly), by China.” (Sandy Cay should not be conflated with the Vietnam-occupied Sand Cay, another feature in the Spratly group.)

Aside from the relatively short list of facts concerning current events — that there are Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island and both the Philippine and Chinese governments are rather silent about the whole affair — there is little else to be said conclusively at this point. Regardless, whatever is happening appears to be a potentially significant change to the status quo in the South China Sea in 2017 — a year that has been deceptively placid in these waters, as my colleague Prashanth Parameswaran has warned in these pages.