Saturday, May 18, 2024

Chinese vessels surge in WPS amid Balikatan —PH Navy

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The number of Chinese vessels has increased in the West Philippines Sea amid Balikatan, the joint military exercise of the Philippines and the United States, the Philippine Navy said on Tuesday.

“Our monitoring for the past two months for March and April has given us a fairly constant—from a low of 33 and a high of 69, and average of 60 various vessels of China,” Philippine Navy spokesperson for the WPS Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad said in a press conference.

“Only for this week that we have seen a surge of up to a total of 124. Three People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and (China) Coast Guard having 10. This coincides with Balikatan. This upsurge is out of the normal,” he added.

Trinidad also pointed out a huge surge in the number of Chinese maritime militia vessels in the WPS particularly in Bajo de Masinloc and Pag-asa Island.

“There was a surge in the maritime militia. From the previous two weeks—69, 50, to 110. So there is a surge in the presence of maritime militia specifically in Bajo de Masinloc and Pag-asa,” he said.

“This coincided with the launching of Balikatan,” Trinidad added.

From April 16 to 22, 124 Chinese vessels including three PLAN ships and 11 Chinese Coast Guard vessels were spotted in the following WPS features:

Bajo de Masinloc – 38 vessels (7 Chinese Coast Guard ships, 31 Chinese maritime militia vessels)

Ayungin Shoal – 31 (3 CCG ships, 28 CMM vessels)

Pag-asa Island – 46 (1 PLAN ship, 1 CCG ship, 44 CMM vessels)

Parola Island – 3 CMM vessels

Lawak Island – 1 PLAN ship

Panata Island – 4 CMM vessels

Patag Island – PLAN vessel

The commodore said the Chinese maritime militia vessels were anchored together.

A day before the Balikatan was scheduled to begin, former US Air Force official and ex-defense attaché Ray Powell said on X (formerly Twitter) that two maritime militia ships left China’s military base at Mischief Reef and loitered near Second Thomas Shoal for six hours.

The Chinese vessels moved within 30 nautical miles away from the coastline of Palawan.

“China’s militia ships have turned back in the direction of Mischief Reef after loitering just outside the Philippines’ 24 nautical miles contiguous zone,” Powell said.

“Very odd behavior. Perhaps intended to send a message at the beginning of the PH-US Balikatan exercise?” he added.

The Philippines and the US on Monday officially started their annual joint military exercise or Balikatan for this year, which includes its first multilateral maritime exercise.

As part of the exercise, Philippine and US troops are set to sink the ex-BRP Lake Caliraya, a decommissioned Philippine Navy replenishment tanker, through a variety of weapons.

Trinidad pointed out that the target ship being a Chinese-made vessel is just a coincidence. This is after Chinese government-supported publication Global Times called the activity “a ridiculous stunt.”

A Chinese newspaper earlier criticized the sinking of the BRP Lake Caliraya as part of the Balikatan exercises and claimed that it was a Chinese-made ship.

“The vessel has been used in the Philippines for a very long, long time so any attachment, if there is any, doesn’t matter at all. It was an old Navy vessel which we decommissioned and, just like in any sinking exercise around the world, they use old vessels as the target of the exercise and the same thing we are doing with Lake Caliraya,” said Philippine Navy Flag Officer in Command Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci in a “24 Oras” report by Ian Cruz on Tuesday.

Aside from this, the navies of the Philippines, US, and France will conduct their first Multilateral Maritime Exercise from April 25 to May 4.

Participating vessels will be originating from Palawan and will be sailing within the bounds of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Tensions between China and the Philippines have heightened in recent months as both sides traded accusations over a series of incidents in the disputed waters.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion in annual ship commerce. Its territorial claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

A portion of the South China Sea within the Philippine EEZ has been renamed the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

In 2016, an international arbitration tribunal in the Hague said China’s claims had no legal basis, a decision Beijing has rejected.—With Jiselle Anne Casucian/RF, GMA Integrated News

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