Think tank flags increase in number of Chinese fishing vessels in Spratlys


Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 11) — A U.S.-based think tank has its doubts on the increased number of Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, and whether or not those vessels were actually fishing.

A report posted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analyzed satellite images of contested areas in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratly group of islands.

It found that China controls most of the fishing vessels operating in the area in 2018, concentrating around Subi (Zamora) and Mischief (Panganiban) reefs.

“An analysis of historical imagery shows that the numbers of Chinese ships at Subi and Mischief were much higher in 2018 than in 2017. In August, which appears to have been the busiest month, there were about 300 ships anchored at the two reefs at any given time. Over 90 percent of these were fishing vessels with an average length of 51 meters and a projected displacement of about 550 tons,” the CSIS report read.

Fishing clusters of approximately ten vessels were also spotted in Thitu (Pag-asa) and Loaita (Kota) islands, both occupied by the Philippines, and the Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba Island.

Based on its satellite data, CSIS had doubts on whether or not the vessels were really conducting fishing activities.

“Not only does imagery analysis show that most Chinese fishing vessels in the Spratlys are not fishing very often but that they could not do so sustainably. The size and quantity of Chinese vessels observed in the Spratlys suggests a massive overcapacity,” the CSIS said.

Instead, the CSIS said that it is possible that these ships serve, perhaps in a part-time capacity, the Chinese militia.

“This gross overcapacity combined with their tendency to congregate around both Chinese-occupied reefs and those held by other claimants leads to the conclusion that most of these vessels serve, at least part-time, in China’s maritime militia,” the CSIS added.

The presence of Chinese vessels in Subi reef peaked in August 2018 at 243 vessels, much higher than the 54 vessels spotted in the same month in 2017, according to the CSIS data.

For Mischief reef, Chinese activity peaked in June 2018, with 139 vessels or a seven-fold increase from the estimated 20 vessels spotted in the same area in June 2017.