A China Coast Guard ship that was deployed during recent pressure campaigns in the South China Sea in Malaysian and Indonesian waters is now patrolling near land features claimed by the Philippines, ship-tracking data shows.
The deployment of the ship, which has the call-sign “Chinacoastguard 5302,” near the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal and two other features claimed by Manila underscores China’s willingness to press its expansive territorial claims, despite a diplomatic détente with the Southeast Asian nation. It also comes as China provides medical aid to the Philippines to help combat the coronavirus.
Vessel-tracking software has allowed Radio Free Asia to confirm the presence of the ship throughout March near Second Thomas Shoal, First Thomas Shoal, and Half Moon Shoal.
Philippine military and defense officials were not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.
The 5302 is a Shucha II-class vessel, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) recognition guide. Ships of this class are nearly 4,000 metric ton displacement and serve as patrol cutters, equipped with helicopter landing pads and space for 30 mm cannons. Ten are in service with the China Coast Guard.
The 5302 has a track record of involvement in previous pressure campaigns in the South China Sea, where six governments including China have territorial claims.
"As countries look inward or are distracted [by the COVID-19 pandemic], like the U.S. and Japan, China has taken advantage of that by increasing its activities in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea,” Jose Antonio Custodio, a military historian and defense analyst at the Institute of Policy, Strategy and Developmental Studies in Manila, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“However, since it is assured of the subservience of the Duterte administration to Beijing, it will not worry about any protest from Manila," Custodio said, referring to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who has sought closer ties with Beijing.
"We may soon see more unilateral exploitation of our EEZ," by the Chinese, Custodio said. EEZ stands for exclusive economic zone – the area of coastal water or seabed where a country claims exclusive rights for fishing, drilling, and other economic activities.The 5302 was tracked leaving the Chinese-occupied base at Mischief Reef and entering Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in early December, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. It later showed up between Dec. 30 and Jan. 4 as part of a flotilla of ships engaged in a stand-off with Indonesia near the Natuna Islands.
During its deployment near Philippine-claimed features, it was first spotted near Half Moon shore on March 6, but reappeared at Second Thomas Shoal on March 9. Where it was between those times is unclear as its Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal which allows its movements to be tracked had disappeared.
Second Thomas Shoal is the only feature of the three to actually be occupied by the Philippines armed forces, although the Philippines claims all of them. Notably, Second Thomas Shoal was the site of a stand-off between China and the Philippines in 2015, as the Philippines attempted to resupply the Marine attachment based on the BRP Sierra Madre, a ship purposely grounded on Second Thomas Shoal in the 1990s to reinforce Philippine claims. A Chinese Coastguard ship was last spotted patrolling the area in mid-January, according to the Philippine newspaper, the Inquirer.
From March 9 to March 30, the 5302 moved around Second Thomas Shoal, stopping to refuel at the artificial island built atop Mischief Reef on March 19. Satellite imagery shows a ship likely to be the 5302 docked at Mischief Reef on that day.