By Drake Long
China has deployed a Coast Guard patrol ship to the Scarborough Shoal, the latest salvo in its sustained pressure campaign against Philippine-claimed features in the disputed South China Sea, ship-tracking data shows.
The China Coast Guard (CCG) ship 3302 was at Scarborough Shoal as of Wednesday, BenarNews can confirm. It left the port of Sanya, Hainan province, China, on Sunday.
Its deployment means CCG ships are patrolling nearly all of the hotspots disputed between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. That’s happening at a time of renewed diplomatic tension after Manila issued a statement on Wednesday directly criticizing China over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.
At the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, another CCG ship, the 5302, has been patrolling near since March 6, last week. The ship was still at that location on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the CCG ship Haijing 5202 has been near Thitu Island, another feature claimed by the Philippines, since April 3.
Thitu Island has been the focus of a prolonged Chinese presence, as reported by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. However, maritime militia appear to have left the area, leaving only the 5202, satellite imagery shows.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought closer ties with China since he took office nearly four years ago. He has sought to tamp down the tensions that flared under his predecessor, when Manila successfully challenged the legal basis of Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims in a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
But bucking that trend, on Wednesday the Philippines joined Hanoi and Washington in criticizing Beijing over the April 2 sinking of the Vietnamese boat in a confrontation with a China Coast Guard ship.
The Philippine foreign office issued what it called a “statement of solidarity” with Hanoi. The statement rebuked Beijing for the incident in waters near the Paracel Islands – which both China and Vietnam claim. It described the sinking as a “provocation” amid a global crisis around the COVID-19 outbreak.
China claims it has historical rights to much of the South China Sea, despite conflicting claims by other governments in the region.
Chinese ships strayed into the Scarborough Shoal area in 2012, leading to a diplomatic rift between Manila and Beijing.
The following year, Manila filed its arbitration case against China, arguing that the triangular shoal in the South China Sea had long been a fishing ground for Filipinos and was well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. But instead of pushing to enforce the 2016 decision, Duterte, who took office that year, chose to appease China.
The CCG ship that has just deployed there, the 3302, is a Zhaoyu-class patrol vessel modeled after the Chinese Type 056 warship. It was last seen in that area in November and forced out a Filipino-crewed ship, Rappler reported at the time. The 3302 weighs roughly 3,500 tons and is equipped with a helicopter deck and a 30-mm gun – it’s designed to be an ocean-going ship, as opposed to patrolling China’s coasts.