MANILA, Philippines - China has been deploying civilian boats disguised as fishing vessels to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal since last month, apparently to help in alerting its coast guard to the presence of non-Chinese vessels in the waters it is trying to seize from the Philippines.
Filipino sailors on a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) research vessel spotted what appeared to be Chinese civilian vessels with towering booms last March 28 and 29 around Ayungin Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The vessels were also seen in the vicinity of Sabina Shoal. There were a total of three Chinese civilian ships spotted during the period.
The BFAR vessel was carrying supplies for the Philippines’ outpost on Ayungin – a grounded World War II transport vessel.
“Those vessels are forward observers of the Chinese coast guard. They’re not fishing vessels but Chinese lookouts,” said one of the Filipino sailors on the BFAR ship.
Lt. Sgt. Ferdinand Gato, head of the resupply and troop rotation mission, agreed, saying that aside from its coast guard ships, China has deployed paramilitary vessels in the area to strengthen its control of Ayungin.
Earlier, Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon said that Chinese fishing vessels entering the country’s regime of islands in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) were actually Beijing’s eyes and ears in the region.
The appearance of the Chinese civilian vessels was later followed by the arrival of two Chinese coast guard ships.
“See, they reported our presence to their coast guard vessels,” a Filipino sailor said.
The two Chinese coast guard vessels would later figure in a cat-and-mouse encounter with the BFAR vessel when the latter was delivering supplies to the grounded BRP Sierra Madre.
The Filipino vessel would eventually outmaneuver the Chinese ships.
Ayungin Shoal is 105 nautical miles from mainland Palawan and 1,100 kilometers from the nearest China land mass.