Photos show China deployment of 'militia' as PH builds on Pag-asa Island - think tank

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 7) — China has deployed up to 95 ships near Pag-asa Island in the disputed South China Sea as the Philippines conducted repairs there, according to a U.S.-based think tank.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on Wednesday released photos of what it said was China's response to runway repairs the Philippines started last May 2018 on Pag-asa Island, one of the biggest islands in the contested Spratlys.

The AMTI said that as early as July 2018, "a handful of Chinese vessels" started operating in the area between Chinese-occupied Subi Reef, locally known as Zamora Reef, and Pag-asa Island, which Beijing calls Thitu. By December that year, the number of Chinese ships rose to 24, the AMTI said, just as the Philippines began building the beaching ramp that would enable authorities to bring in construction equipment to finish the runway.

"In five subsequent satellite images captured from mid-December to late January, their numbers fluctuate, reaching a high of 95 on December 20 before dropping to 42 by January 26," the AMTI noted.

The AMTI said spotted were two Chinese government vessels - People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and China Coast Guard ships - were spotted last December 20 and January 11. "At the same time, one of the Philippine Navy's flagships, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, can be seen to the southeast of Thitu just over 7 nautical miles from the PLAN frigate," the AMTI said.

A PLAN frigate off Pag-asa Island on Dec 20, 2018, according to the AMTI

A China Coast Guard Type 818 cutter and unidentified boat off Pag-asa Island on Dec 20, 2018, according to the AMTI

Also seen were dozens of fishing vessels with sizes from 30 to 70 meters, anchored between 2 to 5.5 nautical miles west of Pag-asa Island. The AMTI is convinced the fishing vessels have all the hallmarks of China's maritime militia "including having no gear in the water that would indicate fishing activity and disabling their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceivers to hide their activities."

Naval and coast guard ships were farther away and the AMTI observed this is consistent with China's "cabbage strategy" as it is known for employing "concentric layers of fishing, law enforcement, and naval vessels around contested waters."

By January 26, only the China Coast Guard ship was seen near Pag-asa Island, meaning the PLAN might have left.

"The drop in the number of government vessels, mirroring the reduction of the militia presence, suggests Chinese forces have settled into a pattern of monitoring and intimidation after their initial large deployment failed to convince Manila to halt construction," the AMTI noted.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier revealed that China tried to stop the government from repairing structures on Pag-asa Island, citing his meetings with Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua.

Pag-asa Island is the seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan. Philippine troops and a community of fishermen live on the island.

Lorenzana has said the Philippines will continue to improve military facilities on Pag-asa Island in 2019, including the repair of military barracks there. The government expects the Pag-asa runway to be completely repaired by the end of 2019.