Reports of a large armada of Chinese boats surrounding a Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea has renewed tensions between the two rival claimants in the strategic maritime area.

Under rising political pressure, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has reportedly filed a diplomatic protest with China over the issue, a diplomatic break from his administration’s conciliatory approach towards Beijing.

Opposition figures, meanwhile, are upping the tempo of their criticism that Duterte’s government is intentionally soft-pedaling on China’s maritime assertiveness, politically charged accusations ahead of highly polarized and crucial midterm elections due in May.

They have also called on Duterte to take a tougher stance on rising reports that Chinese vessels are harassing Filipino fishermen in the contested waters, including through the use of high-powered water cannons.

So far this year an estimated 617 Chinese fishing vessels suspected of belonging to the People’s Liberal Army Maritime Militia Forces (PLA-MFF) have reportedly swarmed Thitu Island, which has been occupied by Filipino troops since the mid-1970s.

A view of Philippine occupied (Pag-asa) Thitu island in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro - RTS1392X
An aerial view of the Philippine-occupied Thitu island in the disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Opposition lawmaker Gary Alejano has said in recent days that Duterte’s government should not allow China to establish a long-term presence around Thitu.

“China is establishing a norm there which we cannot alter later on. Every day is a wasted opportunity to assert our sovereignty if we do not act now,” he said, according to local media reports.

The purpose of the boats’ presence is not immediately clear, but security analysts believe that the swarm of Chinese vessels accomplish multiple strategic objectives.

On one hand, they intimidate Filipino fishermen operating in the area while at the same time disrupting Philippine supply lines, which are crucial to the country’s maintenance of dozens of troops and civilians stationed in the area.

The Chinese fishing boats could also monitor Manila’s ongoing maintenance and upgrade activities on Thitu Island, which has its own airstrip and rudimentary military facilities but in recent years has fallen into disrepair.

Moreover, the Chinese boats are likely also blocking the Philippines from developing the Sandy Cay, a low-tide elevation within Thitu Island’s territorial sea.

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For years, the Philippines has sought to place structures on the sandbar, which would further expand the maritime zones of nearby Thitu Island.

China, which occupies the nearby Subi Reef and claims the entire Spratly chain of islands, has opposed the move and repeatedly deployed para-military vessels to the area over the past two years.

Manila’s diplomatic protest came as the Philippines and United States, a treaty ally, kicked off an annual joint military exercise involving roughly 7,500 troops aimed nominally at building joint capacity to respond to natural disasters.

Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if it came under attack in the South China Sea, the first time America has guaranteed the two sides’ mutual defense treaty covers the maritime area.

After weeks of official silence, the Philippine military has recently confirmed the reports, which also appeared on the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative’s website.

“Indeed there (is a) presence of Chinese vessels in the area,” Edgard Arevalo, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson said on April 1.

“What’s happening is they remain stationary in the area. Some come and go, that’s why it’s quite inaccurate to report the number because some of them come and go. Although some of them stay for a few days or weeks,” the spokesperson said.

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RTX2PML9
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, October 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

“These vessels are considered Chinese maritime militia that are occasionally complemented by the Chinese Coast Guard to sustain China’s assertive presence in the vicinity of the sandbars,” added Marine Lieutenant Colonel Elpidio Factor, assistant chief of the Western Command Unified Staff for Intelligence.

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua has tried to downplay the concerns, telling reporters on April 1 that Beijing is “cooperating with the Philippine side to verify whether there’s any truth in that kind of report.”

He maintained, however, that the boats in the area are not armed and do not belong to Chinese para-military forces, contrary to the Philippine military’s assessment.

“They are actually fishermen. If they are fishing there, they must be fishermen,” the Chinese envoy added.

Still, Duterte’s administration has come under sharp criticism after a senior official called on Filipino fishermen to avoid contested sea areas, including the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, which is currently under de facto Chinese control after a prolonged 2012 naval standoff.

In late March, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) National Director Eduardo Gongona told Filipino fishermen to “refrain from going to the area for the meantime, and concentrate [instead] on our municipal waters.”

Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

He told Filipino fishermen to avoid the Scarborough Shoal because, although there are “high value fish” in the area, their numbers are depleting.

The comments provoked an uproar amid reports circulated by opposition figures such as senatorial candidate Neri Colmenaras, who accused China of aggressively harassing Filipino fishermen operating in the contested areas with water cannons.

He has recently called on Filipinos to take to the streets to express their concern about China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

“At least our people, the government and the world will know that Filipinos are against their illegal and unjust activities and are ready to stand up to defend their rights,” Colmenaras said on April 2.

“We cannot remain silent in the face of China’s actions against our fisherfolk and our rights. We don’t even know if the government has really filed a diplomatic protest. So what else can we do but air our protest directly to China?”

The AFP’s Northern Luzon Command, however, was quick to clarify that “there were no reports of Filipino Fishermen being subjected to the said attack of Chinese water cannons, and so far, there were no sightings of dredging ships in the waters of [Scarborough Shoal] or in the [South China Sea].”

A flotilla of Chinese naval vessels in a live combat drill in an undated photo. Photo: AFP/China Out
A flotilla of Chinese naval vessels in a live combat drill in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP/China Out

The Chinese Ambassador also dismissed the politically charged reports, stating on April 1: “I think we are concerned about the livelihood of fishermen from both sides. And if they think they can fish in the areas where they can catch fish, they can go.”

The Chinese envoy claimed that both sides are discussing “how far they [Filipino fishermen] can go and to what extent they can go near to the islands and reefs that we have people there.”

“There are certain kinds of limits that I think both sides are observing,” Zhao continued, saying that both sides aim to find a mutually satisfactory arrangement in the contested area.

The Philippine public remains largely skeptical about the motivations behind Duterte’s warming ties with China. Whether that skepticism translates into votes for opposition candidates at upcoming polls, however, is yet to be seen.