This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Saturday spotted more than 40 Chinese vessels near Pag-asa, one of the islands occupied by Manila in the South China Sea.
Coast Guard personnel stationed on the island – also known as Thitu – reported a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessel, a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel, and 42 suspected maritime militia vessels, anchored within 4.5 to 8 nautical miles of the shore.
The PCG said this was “clearly inside the land feature’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea.”
The PLA Navy vessel and CCG 5203 had been observed loitering in waters surrounding Pag-asa Island, while the suspected maritime militia vessels were anchored in the vicinity of cays west of the main island, Pag-asa Cay 3 and Pag-asa Cay 4, the PCG said in a statement.
Pag-asa Island, around 300 miles (483 kms) from Puerto Princesa in Palawan province, in the western Philippines, is the largest island in the Philippine-occupied Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the contested Spratly Islands. It serves as a local seat of government, and is home to more than 400 civilians, including 70 children.
The presence of Chinese vessels in the area has become frequent in recent years. In 2020, more than 100 Chinese vessels, which appeared to be fishing boats, were seen near the island. In 2022, a civilian boat manned by Philippine Navy personnel sailed near a sandbar off Pag-Asa Island in a bid to retrieve suspected Chinese rocket debris. A Chinese coast guard ship blocked their path and used a rubber boat to collect the debris.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and the Department of Foreign Affairs have yet to comment on Saturday’s report. Since Marcos took office on June 30, the Philippine government has filed at least 77 diplomatic protests against Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Last month, Marcos summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian – the first such summoning in recent years – after China deployed a military-grade laser against the PCG near Ayungin Shoal, or Second Thomas Shoal, in the Spratlys.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including two main archipelagos, the Paracels and the Spratlys, that it calls Xisha and Nansha, respectively.
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and against Beijing’s sweeping claims in the contested waterway. But China has since refused to acknowledge the ruling.
Based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 arbitral award, the location of the Chinese vessels on Saturday falls squarely within Pag-asa Island’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea.
“Their continuing unauthorized presence is clearly inconsistent with the right of innocent passage and a blatant violation of the Philippines’ territorial integrity,” the PCG statement said.