LOOK: Satellite photos show Chinese maritime militia near Kota, Panata Islands

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Chinese reef fishing boats near Lankiam Cay on March 29, 2019

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 18) — Photos released by a U.S. based think tank showed vessels believed to be part of China’s maritime militia in the vicinity of Philippine-occupied island features in the South China Sea.

A report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on Tuesday showed the vessels drawing as close as less than a kilometer (km) away from Kota and Panata Islands, which are part of the hotly-contested Spratly Island group.

The two features are around 44 km away from Pag-asa Island, where a Chinese flotilla was seen from between January to March this year.

“Satellite images collected on March 12, 16, and 29, and April 7 confirm the presence of Chinese vessels in the area, most of which show every indication of belonging to the maritime militia. In almost every instance, the vessels are riding at anchor, many in large clusters, and without fishing gear in the water,” the AMTI reported.

On March 12, a single Chinese fishing trawler about 50 meters long was visible near Kota Island (Loaita Island). Four days after, the number increased to eight, and by March 29 there were at least 15 large Chinese fishing vessels and eight small boats spotted.

Chinese trawlers near Loaita Cay, March 29, 2019

Two 20-meter Chinese vessels which towed three smaller boats appeared similar to the boats harvesting giant clams through destroying coral reefs around the South China Sea. The most recent incident of Beijing’s clam harvest was in Scarborough Shoal, which Manila had denounced.

Philippine Navy tank landing ship and Chinese fishing vessels east of Loaita Cay, March 29, 2019

“This month-long deployment around the two features shows that the flotilla around Thitu Island is not a one-off incident. As prior research has shown, the maritime militia is and will likely remain the most visible arm of China’s power directed at its neighbors in the Spratly Islands,” the report said.

Manila and Beijing’s territorial dispute over the West Philippine Sea was reignited following the presence of Chinese vessels in Pag-asa Island, also known as Thitu Island. The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs is studying filing a case against China over reports of Chinese fishermen harvesting the clams, and the department secretary claimed he has sent diplomatic notes to the East Asian country.

Beijing’s recent actions in disputed territories have prompted the Philippine government to assert the July 2016 arbitration award which recognized the country’s sovereign rights in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. This area is referred to as the West Philippine Sea, which includes some of the islands in the Spratlys.