China Builds Up its Presence Ahead of Historic U.S.-Philippine Exercise

Chinese maritime militia
Chinese maritime militia trawlers in a typical mooring arrangement (Philippine Coast Guard file image)

Published Apr 23, 2024 9:58 PM by The Maritime Executive


China has doubled the presence of maritime militia and military vessels in and around the Philippine exclusive economic zone in advance of major U.S.-Philippine naval drills, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. 124 Chinese vessels are in the area, with the largest concentrations found near three strategic locations: Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and Pag-asa Island. 

"This upsurge is out of the normal," Philippine Navy spokesman Commodore Roy Trinidad told GMA. For the last two months, the Chinese maritime presence has ranged from 33-69 vessels, he said, with an average of 60. 

China's coast guard has attacked Philippine supply boats near Second Thomas Shoal in the recent past, and the maritime militia has played a key role in Chinese blockades. Though the uptick in presence is concerning, Trinidad said that the AFP expects Chinese forces to "behave" during the exercises because the U.S. Navy will be there. 

"I don’t expect them to do anything illegal because of the presence of foreign warships," Trinidad told Rappler. "Historically, the illegal, unprovoked, uncalled-for actions of China will only be [towards the Philippines]."

Beijing's English-language opinion outlet, Global Times, has expressed outrage that the Philippines will be using an aging Chinese-built product tanker for a sinking exercise as part of the Balikitan 2024 maneuvers. The BRP Lake Caliraya - a decommissioned Philippine Navy oiler - will be targeted with U.S. Navy and Philippine Navy missiles until sunk. Lake Caliraya once belonged to the Philippine National Oil Company, and it was built to merchant tanker specifications by a Chinese shipyard.

"It is a ludicrous performance by Manila . . . showing clear provocative intent," complained Global Times. "We hope that the Philippines will not allow the 'spiritual victory' of sinking target ships to make them too excited, leading to the illusion that they can take on real ships."

The Philippine Navy had planned to use Lake Caliraya as a target ship at least as early as July 2023. The first attempt failed when the derelict tanker drifted aground in a storm. It has since been refloated and prepped for Balikatan 2024. 

"The vessel has been used in the Philippines for a very long, long time," Philippine Navy Vice Adm. Toribio Adaci told 24 Oras. "Just like in any sinking exercise around the world, they use old vessels as the target of the exercise and the same thing we are doing with Lake Caliraya."