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220 Chinese Vessels Stake Out Another Reef in Spratly Islands

Whitsun Reef
Whitsun Reef, a submerged feature at Union Banks measuring about four miles per side (NASA)

Published Mar 21, 2021 8:12 PM by Paul Benecki

China's maritime militia has shown up in force at Union Banks, an atoll within the Philippines' EEZ claim. According to the Philippine Coast Guard, about 220 maritime militia vessels were anchored in a line off one of the atoll's reefs on March 7. 

“Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during nighttime,” said the Philippines' National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) in a statement. “In consonance with the Philippine commitment to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, the government shall continue to peacefully and proactively pursue its initiatives on environmental protection, food security and freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea as part of its overall national security policy."

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said that he filed a diplomatic protest with China on Sunday. 

“We view with grave concern the presence of 220 Chinese militia boats in the Julian Felipe Reef (Union Reef) in the West Philippine Sea. This is a clear provocative action of militarizing the area,” said Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement. "We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory. We are committed to uphold our sovereign rights over the WPS [Philippine EEZ]."

Maritime militia vessels lined up at Union Banks (NTF-WPS)

"Julian Felipe" is an alternate name for Whitsun Reef, a "boomerang-shaped" submerged feature at the northeastern tip of Union Banks. Whitsun is the largest feature at the atoll, and its longest stretch measures about four miles in length; if reclaimed by dredging and filling, it would provide ample space for a strategic runway. It lies about 50 nm to the west of China's heavily-militarized Mischief Reef, one of many PLA air/naval bases built on reclaimed land in the Spratly Islands,

The arrival of the maritime militia follows about two months after the passage of China's new Coast Guard Law, which allows the agency broad latitude to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when [China's] national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea." This includes the use of small arms, based on the "nature, degree and urgency" of the case and the personnel's "reasonable judgement." In the event of serious non-compliance, the use of deck guns would be permitted. 

China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea as its own, despite UNCLOS' limits on territorial seas, other countries' EEZs and an unfavorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. Beijing considers all of the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands to be its own "inherent territory," despite competing claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia.