The banner photo reveals a swarm of Chinese fishing vessels anchored on Iroquois Reef, while the inset photo shows a PLAN warship in the vicinity of Sabina Shoal. These photographs were captured last week during an air patrol surveillance mission conducted by the Philippine Navy. (Contributed images)

Air surveillance missions conducted by the Philippine Navy over the West Philippine Sea last week exposed yet another concerning sight: 48 Chinese militia vessels swarming Iroquois Reef, and seven maritime assets, including two warships, loitering in the vicinity of Sabina Shoal.

Iroquois Reef is situated to the south of Recto Bank, a tablemount abundant in oil and gas resources, located within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the country.

The information was provided by the pilots aboard NV312, a Britten Norman Islander light patrol aircraft operated by the Philippine Navy. On June 30, during their air patrol, the pilots spotted the Chinese fishing vessels surrounding Iroquois Reef.

“The swarming of CFVs there is quite visible from the air,” said Lt. Edgard Abogado, pilot-in-command of NV312.

His co-pilot, Lt. Karla Andres, mentioned that the CFVs were not observed engaging in any fishing activities, but rather, they were simply present without any clear purpose.

“Some of the CFVs were observed to be anchored in groups of five to seven, while the majority were in close proximity to each other, and no fishing activities were noticed,” she said. “They appear to be simply loitering in the area.”

The recent observations made by NV312 validate previous Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) flights in the area, which had already indicated a growing presence of CFVs.

In February of this year, only 12 CFVs were recorded, but as of June 12, their numbers have increased to 48.

In addition to the surge observed at Iroquois Reef, there has also been a notable increase in the presence of Chinese maritime assets at Sabina Shoal.

Regularly lingering in the area are three China Coast Guard (CCG) ships and two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels, in contrast to two wooden resupply boats from the Philippines and two Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels.

Commander Ariel Coloma, spokesperson of the Western Command (WESCOM), said these developments raise an alarming concern about China’s intentions and actions within these Philippine-claimed features.

“Recto Bank is a vital Philippine territory, and China must cease its swarming of vessels to respect our sovereignty and territorial rights,” he said.

He reiterated that China’s actions in Recto Bank, with its immense potential for bolstering the Philippines’ energy security and fueling economic growth, serve to further magnify concerns and apprehensions regarding its intentions.