The CCG 5203, CG 5001, and Legend on March 26, 2022. (Photo from Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

In the past two months, Chinese Coast Guard ships have harassed and intimidated Filipino vessels conducting marine research and hydrocarbon exploration in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) by shadowing and bullying them.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), an interactive venture created by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to enhance openness and communication in maritime Asia, said that in the last two months three incidents have been recorded in the disputed sea.

It reported last week (May 26) that China appears uncomfortable that Taiwan and the Philippines are doing a research project to map geologic features that could trigger “potentially catastrophic phenomena in the area”.

The research vessel involved was the Legend from the Taiwan Ocean Research Institute, sojourning under the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST), which sailed to the Philippines on March 13, to do the mapping with the National Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of the Philippines (UP).

The AMTI in its report “Three Rounds of Coercion in Philippine Waters” said that on March 15, the Legend conducted hydrographic surveys along a 50-nautical-mile-wide grid to the northwest of the Babuyan Islands in the Philippines, based on data from the Marine Traffic’s Automatic Identification System (AIS).

As the research vessel continued 60 nautical miles northwest of Luzon on March 23, a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship departed Mischief Reef and began shadowing it the following day from a distance of around two to three nautical miles.

Taipei despatched its own Coast Guard (CG) 5001 Chiayi, a 125-meter large patrol vessel, from the Taiwan-occupied Pratas Island on March 25. Throughout the next two days, the CG 5001 attempted to keep the CCG 5203 ship away from the Legend, periodically getting within 1,000 meters of each other, the AMTI stated.

AIS tracks of Geo Coral and its supply ship Mariska G tailed by the CCG 4201

“On April 1, AIS data shows the Legend moved closer to the Philippine coast and the CCG 5203 left, heading for disputed Scarborough Shoal where China maintains a constant coast guard presence. On April 6 the Legend again moved farther offshore, operating 70 nautical miles west of Luzon. This time it was accompanied by a Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel, the 45-meter BRP Capones. The CCG 5203 returned that same night to again shadow the Legend with the Capones providing protection,” the AMTI said.

The BRP Capones returned to port in San Fernando, Philippines, late on April 7, but the CCG 5203 continued to pursue the Legend. “The cat-and-mouse game concluded when the Legend returned to Taiwan on April 9,” the AMTI claimed.

But on April 4, the AMTI said another situation developed south of the Philippine coast. At the center of the event was the Geo Coral survey ship owned by a Norwegian seismic exploration company, Shearwater GeoServices.

AMTI said that AIS data indicates the Geo Coral arrived in Block SC 75, just 60 nautical miles west of Palawan and the Philippine shore, on April 4, when it met the supply ship Mariska G.

“As reported by maritime observer Duan Dang, the Philippines’ PXP Energy in February announced plans to conduct 3D seismic surveys in SC 75. It also planned to drill two appraisal wells in SC 72 in Reed Bank, an underwater feature claimed by China but which a 2016 arbitral ruling determined is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. As soon as the Geo Coral and Mariska G arrived in SC 75, they picked up a tail: CCG 4201,” it said.

The AMTI added that the 4201 closely tailed the two vessels for the next two days until the Department of Energy (DOE) ordered the PXP Energy on April 6 to halt exploration efforts for SC 72 and SC 75 to allow the Security, Justice and Peace Coordinating Cluster (SJPCC) of President Rodrigo Duterte’s cabinet to issue required clearances.

The Geo Coral and Mariska G left SC-75 abruptly and spent the following four days surveying nearer to shore in block SC 54 before leaving the Philippine seas en route to their next contract in South Korea, the report continued.

A few weeks later, Chinese law enforcement and paramilitary vessels impeded a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel conducting research for the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

AMTI said that the BFAR vessel left on April 20 for Second Thomas Shoal, an underwater feature being occupied by the Philippines and was ruled to be part of its EEZ and continental shelf in 2016. Upon approaching the shoal on April 21, it alerted the attention of the CCG 5304, which pursued it at unusual close distances, on several occasions just within 100 meters. 

“As the CCG 5304 pursued, the CCG 5303 and two Hainan-based militia vessels, the Qiong Sansha Yu 00401 and Qiong Sansha Yu 00105, closed in from the north. Under pressure, the DA BFAR turned around 12.7 nautical miles from Second Thomas Shoal. It retreated 13 nautical miles east before heading north toward Philippine-occupied Nanshan Island, tailed by the CCG 5304,” the AMTI report said.

“Meanwhile, a 44.5-meter Parola-class patrol vessel of the Philippine Coast Guard, the BRP Cape Engaño, approached Second Thomas from the east, having left Palawan earlier that day. It was marked by the CCG 5303 and Qiong Sansha Yu 00105, which each shadowed it at distances of approximately 1 nautical mile as it headed toward Second Thomas,” AMTI added. 

It added further that three militia vessels, the Qiong Sansha Yu 00009, 00101, and 00110, steamed up from the south roughly six nautical miles east of the reef, whereupon the three vessels halted.

Prior to establishing a position at the north end of Second Thomas, the intruders passed less than a mile east of the Philippine Coast Guard vessel.

The warships kept their positions for several hours before the Cape Engaño reversed course to the east, encouraged by the incoming 5303, which followed it until it departed the vicinity and headed northwest for the uninhabited Whitsun Reef, the AMTI stated.

“All three incidents demonstrate Beijing’s determination to control maritime activity within the nine-dash line and to create a high risk of collisions at sea to do so. In one instance, its tactics clearly succeeded, convincing the Philippines to backpedal on an October 2020 decision to lift a nearly decade-old moratorium on oil and gas exploration in areas of its continental shelf that fall within the nine-dash line,” it said.

“This follows a complete lack of progress on joint exploration despite a 2018 memorandum of understanding with Beijing, making it unclear whether the Philippines will ever be able to access its hydrocarbon resources at Reed Bank,” AMTI added.

The AMTI concluded its report by stating that Philippine law enforcement, naval, and marine scientific players have expanded their presence on other fronts in the South China Sea despite China’s growing assertiveness. It remains to be seen, however, how vigorously the Philippines will continue to pursue these rights after a new administration sits in power at the end of June.