..Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Since the maritime standoff at Scarborough Shoal in April, when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone, not a week has passed without an ever-expanding incursion by Chinese boats in disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Oceangoing vessels passing through the strategic trade routes into East Asia are not surprised to encounter flotillas escorted by Chinese gunboats ruling the waves, as Beijing raises the profile of its maritime presence in the disputed sea.
On Saturday, in the latest of these predatory incursions, a fleet of 20 large fishing boats sailed back to mainland China, their cargo holds filled with corals and marine turtles they had plundered from waters near Pag-asa Island, 480 kilometres off southwestern Palawan.
Pag-asa is the largest of five islands and islets in the Spratlys being claimed by the Philippines. Declared in 1978 as a barangay of the municipality of Kalayaan, the island has a 1.3-km airstrip used by the Philippine military to transport troops and supply.
A military source said the Armed Forces of the Philippines believed the Chinese-occupied Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) was being used as a staging ground for the expanding presence inside Philippine territory.
China occupied Panganiban Reef in 1995 over protests from the Philippines and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). China claimed it was constructing a shelter for its fishermen.
Nothing galls local officials and frustrates Philippine military officers more than the helplessness of the Philippine government to stop this pillage of patrimonial resources in broad daylight and within striking distance.
Philippine military sources reported that Chinese fishing vessels escorted by at least two frigates of the People's Liberation Army had been deployed around Pag-asa.
They said the fishing vessels had anchored only 9 km from Pag-asa, close enough for employees to say they could see the Chinese using booms and winches to haul corals from the seabed onto wooden "sampans".
According to municipal officials, Philippine troops on the island were under orders to stand down while authorities in Manila "sorted out" the problem with the Chinese through diplomatic channels.
An official at the military's West Command confirmed the Chinese presence near Pag-asa but said the Department of Foreign Affairs would address the matter.
A source at the Naval Forces West Command, on the other hand, said at least four Philippine Navy and Coast Guard ships were patrolling Philippine-claimed territories, but it was not clear how the Navy would respond to the Chinese presence. The fishing fleet arrived on Tuesday.
Department of National Defence surveillance photographs showed at least 30 fishing boats were in Subi Reef, just south of Pag-asa.
Kalayaan municipal officials believe the fleet came from the Paracels and is part of government-sponsored fishing expedition backed by several frigates and armed China fisheries department vessels.
From operational terms, China is using its fishing fleets as the marauding shock troops of its creeping predatory incursions for resources in the disputed territories.
According to Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon of Kalayaan, Chinese ships were dredging the reefs to make room for more fishing fleets to enter the lagoons.
He said the fishermen were not only poaching fish but also "coral mining," which destroys the breeding ground of fish. Corals are used by the Chinese as a base ingredient for some type of marine glue used in shipbuilding.
Bito-onon claimed that the Chinese vessels were congregating near Pag-asa "because on the opposite side are the Vietnamese in Southwest Cay and they have gun emplacements there."
They prefer to anchor near Pag-asa because they are not safe on "the Vietnamese side of the passage, where there are large cannons pointed toward the sea," he said.
The mayor may have given us a pointer on an effective deterrent to Chinese incursions riding roughshod in our territories to carry out their plunder of resources.
As an upshot of the controversy over the fishing incursions, Kalayaan officials revealed that the Chinese were also developing Subi Reef into another fortress.
They said the Chinese completed in May the construction on a half-submerged reef of a four-story building with a dome-shaped radar on its deck.
Recent aerial photos taken by the WesCom showed a "landing ship" type anchored in the inner portion of the reef.
Beijing confirmed this arsenal building plans when it announced last week that its troops would operate from Sansha in the Paracel Islands, one of two archipelagos in the West Philippine Sea claimed both by China and Vietnam.
The announcement stoked tensions in the region and international concerns over the spiraling conflict.
US Sen. John McCain warned that China was "unnecessarily provocative" in saying it would establish a military garrison on disputed islands. The Chinese defence ministry plans to establish a garrison on Woody Reef (Yongxing Island).
McCain said China's decision to deploy troops in the disputed sea reinforced the concerns of many Asian countries about its expansive territorial claims, which had no basis in international law, and the possibility that China would try to impose "those claims with force and intimidation."