A recent interview with an official from the naval command that has jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea reported an increase in the number of Chinese “fishing vessels” loitering around the Philippine-held Pag-Asa Island. The report stated that from the time a count was made at “around 600”, that had dwindled to a few during President Duterte’s recent official visit to China, today the pack has started to swell again.

According to the Naval Forces West, the number of Chinese vessels near Pag-Asa has doubled since last week, from 28 to more than 50 currently. This, following the Recto Bank incident and the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by one of those Chinese vessels.

By this time, it should be clear to authorities as it stands to reason that those supposed Chinese fishing vessels are not doing any fishing around Pag-Asa. They are there for a different reason only the Chinese government can explain.

The vicinity of Pag-Asa is not a productive fishing ground to attract commercial fishing fleets, unlike Scarborough Shoal. There are other areas far out of that island that are more productive. Filipino fishers would rather stake out around Recto Bank instead. It would be foolish for Chinese commercial fishers operating on a high overhead to concentrate in a small shallow area if their only purpose is to catch fish.

Many independent experts on the subject of Chinese naval practices assert that those boats are in fact Chinese militia, whose purpose is to execute China’s strategy of harassing and isolating its rival claimant countries in the South China Sea, that vast ocean it claims as historically belonging to them.

An analysis of remote-sensed data images on the West Philippine Sea conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that while China does send out large fishing fleets because of overfishing and pollution in its own coastal waters, the boats that are in the Spratlys are much smaller than real fishing vessels, “far for small and medium-sized to operate productively without being heavily subsidized.”

If the same analysis and conclusions are shared by our own intelligence community and the Naval Forces West, such is not told to the public for apparent reasons of national security. But the absence of any sensible action on the part of the government to address this strange phenomenon at the least is unsettling. It is additionally troubling that President Duterte has given China an imprimatur to continue what it is doing in the area supposedly because we are friends.

It is in a way a let-down that the Philippine government recently announced it is no longer interested in holding a joint probe with China in the Recto Bank incident. That probe was an opportunity to find out what the Chinese boat that sunk Gem-Ver 1 was doing in the area and if it was indeed a fishing boat or a militia boat masquerading as one.

The investigation, for instance, would have looked at the boat’s automatic identification system (AIS), which is required of all Chinese fishing vessels, that would show its routes that led it to Recto Bank. And if it indeed was fishing, how had it been doing by that time?

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