China maintains militia presence around Pag-asa Island for over 450 days now

“China has maintained a militia presence around Philippine-occupied Thitu (Pag-asa) Island for over 450 days and counting,” the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said in a Twitter post on March 8.

It added that that satellite imagery analysis tracks the militia presence, as well as Philippine runway repairs and harbor construction.

AMTI was designed and conceived by Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“China first deployed militia vessels around Thitu in December 2018 in response to Philippine efforts to repair the island’s runway and undertake other upgrades. Since then, the militia fleet has fluctuated in size but rarely, if ever, disappeared. As a result, the Philippines has made very little progress on its planned upgrades. But there are signs that could be changing,” AMTI said in a release March 5.

“AMTI reached this conclusion after examining satellite imagery from PlanetLabs collected between December 2, 2018, and March 2, 2020. For consistency, vessels were only counted inside a 32-square-nautical-mile area covering the reefs and sandbars to the west of Thitu, where most of the militia fleet congregates,” AMTI noted.

It added that “images which included less than 50 percent of this target area or had more than 50 percent cloud cover were excluded. In total, AMTI was able to count vessels on 208 out of 459 days. This reveals an average of 18 Chinese ships around Thitu each day. These counts indicate the minimum number of Chinese ships present on a given day. Many vessels likely went uncounted because they were under cloud cover or outside the frame of the images.”

AMTI also noted that evidence shows that the ships are not fishing.

“Most are trawlers, and yet they sit stationary, clearly not trawling. A small number are falling net vessels, but they have no gear deployed. VIIRS imagery from this period shows no evidence of lights being used for night fishing. All of this is consistent with the behavior of the fleet since December 2018—the “fishing” ships around Thitu are engaged in surveillance and harassment, not fishing,” it explained.

“And as usually happens when their numbers spike, the militia boats were accompanied by a government vessel,” AMTI said.