This photo taken by the Philippine Coast Guard shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

In 2019, the massing of Chinese fishing boats near Philippines-occupied Pag-asa prompted predictions of doom and demands for kinetic action. But nothing untoward happened and the incident faded from the headlines.

Fast-forward. Now about 200 Chinese fishing boats are moored in the Philippines-claimed 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the South China Sea.

The Philippines has formally protested their presence. Moreover, Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana has publicly called on the Chinese to “stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory.”

The situation has generated an international chorus of concern aided and abetted by leading analysts. The Philippines and some analysts have declared that the vessels are crewed by maritime militia and that their intention is to demonstrate China’s illegal historic claim to the waters. Some are goading the Philippines and the US to act, claiming that their presence is a challenge to the Philippines “and by extension the Americans.”

However, only a few of the boats may be maritime militia, and they may be anchored in what Beijing claims is its territorial waters around a rock legally claimed by China.

Let’s try to sort out the wheat from the chaff before this situation is further clouded by politically inspired public statements – from all sides.

The vessels are anchored at Whitsun Reef, called Julian Felipe Reef by the Philippines, “a boomerang-shaped and shallow coral region about 175nm west of Palawan,” as described by Wikipedia.

The presence of Chinese fishing boats there is not new. The numbers fluctuate. This gathering was first reported in January, although some may have been there as early as last November. After the Philippines raised the alarm, the US said Chinese boats “have been mooring in this area for many months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the weather.” It did not specify the details and timing of the increase.

Once the situation was publicly revealed by the Philippines, the US State Department criticized China for using its maritime militia vessels to “intimidate and provoke” other countries: “The US stands with our allies, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of PRC maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef…. which undermines peace and security.”

Officials and diplomats from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Japan also expressed concern about rising tensions and destabilization of the situation.

But what really set the situation on edge was a conclusion by Andrew Erickson, a noted authority on China’s maritime militia, that the vessels are indeed “maritime militia.”

Radio Free Asia quoted Erickson: “The ships photographed look and act very much like the 84 large steel hulled vessels purpose built at multiple shipyards.” He speculated that they are “trolling for territory” and warned that if not “countered at Whitsun Reef, or elsewhere, the PAFMM (maritime militia) vessels could support further territorial seizure akin to what China achieved at Scarborough Shoal in 2012.”

Erickson (and a co-author, Ryan Martinson) subsequently qualified this allegation in a Foreign Policy article by asserting that at least seven of the more than 200 Chinese vessels are maritime militia that have been operating at the Union Banks, including Whitsun Reef. So now it is seven definite maritime militia vessels (out of 200) – not 84 – and they have been operating in the general area, not all the time at Whitsun Reef.

Nevertheless, Erickson and Martinson conclude that most of the some 200 vessels are likely attached to the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), although it is not clear that China even has that many maritime-militia vessels.

Just to make clear the vessels’ allegedly evil intent, Erickson suggests that they are making a “presence assertion and signaling resolve and attempt to compel compliance without assertive policy approach.” He adds that because of their great size and robustness, “the ships themselves are the main weapon.”

That may well be, but this is in the minds of the beholders. It seems that one can only prove they are maritime militia if they are observed acting like maritime militia.

Other analysts readily chimed in. The Institute of Strategic and International Studies’ Greg Poling also expressed skepticism that the vessels were fishing boats and said they were unlikely to disperse. He then urged the international community to “draw a line in the sand” – “now.”

Not to be left out of this rush to judgment, Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the vessels represented a challenge to Manila that should be taken up.

Such hype is dangerous because it enhances the possibility of a clash between Chinese and Philippine naval or coast guard vessels that could drag the US into the fray through the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

Under that treaty, the parties are bound to respond to an armed attack on either of them. “Armed attack” includes one “on the island territories under [either’s] jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” The US says the term “Pacific” includes the South China Sea. But some question whether coast guard vessels constitute “public vessels.” Filipino opinion leaders think they do.

The tension is mounting. On March 25, the Philippines sent navy ships to the area, although they did not approach the Chinese vessels. Indeed, Lorenzana said he wanted to avoid provoking an incident and be seen as militarizing the situation – which is how China may well see it.

The Philippines also sent a fighter aircraft on daily missions to surveil the moored vessels. China responded by announcing another military exercise to the north of the Paracels far from the present area of controversy. Nevertheless some pundits interpreted it as a signal to the Philippines and the US not to go too far.

On March 30, a Philippine military plane with local journalists aboard flew over the area and was warned to “stay away” and “leave immediately.” But that could be justified if the aircraft – as reported – flew without permission over Cuarteron Reef, a rock claimed and occupied by China with a 12nm territorial sea.

Let’s take a deep breath and assess the situation objectively. China also claims Julian Felipe, calling it Niu’e Jiao. Some sources say there are sand bars on the reef that remain above water at high tide. If so, they can be claimed as territory and are entitled to a 12nm territorial sea. Again if so, and the vessels are moored within 12nm of them, then they are in a territorial sea around a disputed feature claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Poling acknowledges that Whitsun Reef “lies within a mile a two of existing Chinese bases” (actually within 11nm of Hughes Reef), although the bases are on features that are not legal rocks. Whitsun Reef is also within 12nm of Grierson Reef – a legal rock – occupied by Vietnam but also claimed by China. Moreover the boats are not fishing, so they are not violating any country’s fishing laws.

Fishing boats or maritime militia are allowed to anchor in a foreign territorial sea if “rendered necessary by force majeure or distress.” When and whether the seas were rough can be checked by weather records.

In December and January the northeast monsoon blows at great strength accompanied by rain and a turbulent sea, though by March it has moderated. The vessels are moored in the lee of the reef, offering some protection from the northeast monsoon. On March 22 when the complaints reached the media, the seas were choppy with heights of 3 meters and a period of nine seconds. The wind map from March 15-21 shows high wind speeds.

Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta Romana wisely suggests that we should watch and see if the vessels stay in the area when the weather improves. The weather appears good right now. By Thursday, the number of Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef had dropped to 60. Whether that is due to the literal or political weather remains to be ascertained.

The point is that although not all the facts are known and the jury is still out on this incident, nations and supposedly objective analysts have been quick to jump to conclusions. One thing is certain: The US and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s opposition are having a public relations field day over this – whatever the facts.

Beijing has some public relations fence-mending to do. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will have an opportunity to give Beijing’s side of the story when he meets with the foreign ministers of Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia this week. 

It’s to be hoped that this will calm the situation and blunt the hype before it makes things worse.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.