"Illegal Structures" Spotted at Contested S. China Sea Reefs

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

Published Apr 2, 2021 7:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Thursday, the Philippine military said that it has found "illegal" structures on reefs at Union Banks, a drowned atoll where Chinese maritime militia vessels have been massing over the course of the past month. 

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claimed that a patrol overflight had spotted the structures on Tuesday, though it did not provide further information on their nature or location.  

"[UNCLOS] gives the Philippines indisputable and exclusive rights over the area," Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said. "These constructions and other activities, economic or otherwise, are prejudicial to peace, good order, and security of our territorial waters."

Union Banks is located in the Spratly Islands, about 50 miles to the west of Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef. It falls within the Philippine EEZ, but like the vast majority of the South China Sea, it is claimed by China. Over 200 People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) trawlers were sighted at Whitsun Reef - the largest submerged feature in the atoll - on March 7 and again on March 24. Most have since dispersed to other Chinese-claimed islands in the area, but dozens remain. 

"[The maritime militia] build-up and massing formation from Julian Felipe Reef to other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group is hazardous to navigation and safety of life at sea," the NTF-WPS said. "Their swarming also poses a threat to the peaceful exercise of sovereign rights of the Philippines in its EEZ."

In response to the mass presence of the PAFMM, the Philippine government plans to deploy patrol vessels belonging to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). After initially suggesting that naval vessels would be dispatched, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana clarified that only PCG and BFAR assets would be used to assert Philippine sovereignty near Whitsun Reef, while naval vessels "will be patrolling . . . the general vicinity of the area."

"We don't want to be accused of provoking, retaining our navy ships in the area," he told CNN Philippines. "So white ship for now, only Coast Guard or BFAR."

Fishing objectives

China insists that the large, inactive and cosmetically-flawless trawlers anchored for weeks at Whitsun Reef are no different from other Chinese commercial fishing vessels. Long-running studies of the Chinese maritime militia force - including one recently published in Foreign Policy - suggest that some or all of these vessels were purpose-built for the use of the state-funded PAFMM, not for fishing. 

When PAFMM vessels do engage in incidental fishing activity in the Spratly Islands, their methods have "possible consequences not only to the environment but also to fisheries production and fisherfolk welfare," according to the Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, a group of Philippine scientists. At worst, damage caused by Chinese land reclamation activity, military base construction, reef destruction and illegal giant clam poaching could affect the Philippines' food security, they cautioned in a public letter released Thursday. As Chinese forces marshall around another contested land feature in the Spratly Islands, the group warned that "the building of military bases has destroyed at least [60 square miles] of reefs" to date.