China ‘senses weakness’ from Biden over the South China Sea
China's controversial land claims in the South China Sea have been extended to an uninhabited stretch of reef that until the Nineties was mostly submerged under water. Known as the Whitsun Reef, the 3.9-square-mile island holds a key strategic position in the Union Banks atoll of the Spratly Islands. The reef has been, consequently, hotly contested by China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Earlier this year, satellite images collected by Maxar Technologies appeared to reveal a "swarm" of some 200 Chinese vessels in the waters around the disputed islands.
Following mounting pressure from authorities in Manila, the Chinese fleet dispersed from the region in April.
Satellite images, however, appear to show the bulk of China's fleet sailed some 125 miles east to the Iroquois Reef.
The moves sparked another wave of protest from Manila, with the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs being told in late September to file complaints against the Chinese regime.
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Maxar satellite images showing Chinese 'fishing boats' in the disputed waters
Teodoro Locsin Jr, Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the Philippines, justified his decision citing the "continued presence of Chinese fishing vessels in vicinity" of the reef.
Now, according to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), many of the ships may be headed back to the Union Banks.
The development has sparked concerns China may be ramping up its efforts to claim land in the disputed waters.
The Iroquois Reef sits northeast of the Spratly Islands and is believed to be rich in oil and gas.
The AMTI said in a recent report: "Recent imagery shows that the number of ships at Iroquois has fallen since the Philippine protest, but it also suggests that many of those vessels likely headed back to Union Banks, where numbers are now reaching the levels seen in March.
"This is evidence of the Chinese militia’s shell game in the Spratly Islands.
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"When international outcry or patrols by other claimants convince them to leave a disputed feature, they disperse to nearby reefs for a time.
"But their overall numbers in the Spratlys remain consistent."
Officials in Beijing have maintained the vessels are legitimate fishing boats trawling Chinese maritime territory.
The Philippines government, however, fears the vessels are operated by the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), which is part of the Chinese armed forces.
China claims sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea, despite international rulings under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the contrary.
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Vessels seen in the disputed Spratly Islands
China's actions have sparked numerous protests from the Philippines
After an independent tribunal ruled against China's interests in 2016, Beijing decried the ruling as "nothing more than a piece of waste paper".
Earlier this summer, the US Naval Institute (USNI) reported the presence of a Chinese intelligence-gathering vessel in the Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.
The USNI said: "China has been conducting a range of other surveys in the area and further afield, in the Indian Ocean and, it is suspected in Indonesian sovereign waters.
"But the activities in the South China Sea are likely to continue to gather significant attention."
The Spratly Islands have seen a number of maritime incidents between Chinese and Filipino vessels, including the alleged collision between a Chinese militia vessel and a Filipino fishing boat.
The Chinese Yuemaobinyu 42212 is believed to have hit fishing boat F/B Gem-Ver on June 9, 2019, after which its fled the scene of the incident.
The AMTI said in late 2019: "The Yuemaobinyu 42212’s actions during and after the incident, combined with sparse details about the vessel itself, raise questions about whether it may belong to China’s maritime militia operating throughout the South China Sea.
"There is not enough publicly available information about the vessel for a definitive answer.
"But data gathered by AMTI and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) strongly suggests that the 42212 is more than just a normal fishing boat."