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Chinese boats tied up "with military precision" in Whitsun Reef, said maritime expert

March 31, 2021 | 14:39

China has provoked international alarm by massing ships in the Bien Dong Sea (internationally called the South China Sea) near a reef belonging to Vietnam's sovereignty.

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Satellite imagery obtained by NPR from Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels moored in the crook of the boomerang-shaped coral bar known as Whitsun Reef or Ba Dau Reef in Vietnamese. (Photo: CNN)

China's unusual move

Satellite imagery obtained by NPR from Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels moored in the crook of the boomerang-shaped coral bar known as Whitsun Reef or Ba Dau Reef in Vietnamese. Whitsun is a reef at the northeast extreme limit of the Sinh Ton Commune in the Spratly Islands. The images show Chinese boats, some lashed 10 abreast together, lingering in the waters of the reef that lies just beneath the surface. The Philippine coast guard reported spotting 220 vessels on March 7.

China claims much of the Bien Dong Sea for itself and has built several artificial islands. The scale of China's building far exceeds that of other countries, and this latest move has drawn international concern. It's raised fears that China perhaps aims to occupy and reclaim Whitsun Reef while intimidating its regional rivals, according to NPR.

"On Monday, a reconnaissance flight by the Philippine Air Force showed that 183 of them were still there. So, you basically have around 200 vessels that have been there for weeks now," says Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

Gregory Poling, who runs the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says that the boats, tied up "with military precision" beside each other, "are not fishing," they're parked.

The Chinese have denied they are up to anything unusual and said that its "fishing vessels" were merely sheltering from "rough seas." But expert Batongbacal says there have been no "adverse weather conditions" in the area in the weeks the Chinese have been there.

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The Philippine coast guard reported spotting 220 vessels on March 7. (Photo: GMA)

China's conspiracy to build an artificial island on Whitsun Reef?

"One big worry, of course, is that they might be preparing to occupy the reef ... in order to construct another artificial island," says Batongbacal, adding, "We've seen it happen before." He says the episode bears the earmarks of China's takeover of Mischief Reef in the 1990s. Today the reef is China's biggest outpost in the South China Sea. Mischief sits on the eastern edge of the seven artificial islands China has built in the Spratly archipelago.

“Even if this situation is resolved nominally in our [Philippines] favor, meaning that the entire fleet disperses, the situation overall is still the same. China has still made inroads into the West Philippine Sea and it has established and is maintaining its network of military bases there,” GMA quoted Batongbacal. “Even if they withdraw temporarily from Whitsun Reef, we should be vigilant about all the other places where this can also happen.”

In 2016, the arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled that China's island-building activities on Subi Reef and six other reefs constitute violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS. It left, however, claims on which country has sovereignty over these areas.

CNN said that Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte raised the arbitral win in a recent meeting with the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, along with the presence of over 200 Chinese fishing and maritime vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef, in the West Philippine Sea.

Japan, Australia, the U.K., and Canada expressed concern as well, saying the Chinese flotilla was threatening regional security.

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The Grierson Reef belongs to the Spratly Islands and is part of Sinh Ton Commune, Truong Sa District in the south-central province of Khanh Hoa. (Photo: VN Express)

Chinese vessels operating near the Spratly Islands are a serious violation of Vietnam's sovereignty and must be ended, Vietnam has demanded. "The activities of Chinese ships in the waters off Grierson Reef seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)," Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said March 25, according to VN Express.

"This goes against the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and complicates the situation in the sea. Vietnam demands that China ends its violations, respects Vietnam's sovereignty, comply with the DOC and not complicate the situation further," Hang said. "It should be repeated that Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to assert sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, in accordance with international law. As a coastal state and a member of the UNCLOS, Vietnam enjoys sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in accordance with the convention."

The Grierson Reef belongs to the Spratly Islands and is part of Sinh Ton Commune, Truong Sa District in the south-central province of Khanh Hoa.

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