China at Whitsun Reef: Effective Control by Overwhelming Presence

A new satellite photo of the maritime militia swarm at Whitsun Reef shows how China is committed to maintaining its effective control over this maritime feature within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. How long before its other vessel swarms at features even closer to the Philippine archipelago--Sabina Shoal and Iroquois Reef--grow to look like this?
Ray Powell | MAY 19, 2024
China at Whitsun Reef: Effective Control by Overwhelming Presence

Ray Powell




China's vessels swarms at Whitsun Reef are nothing new--first generating an outcry from the Philippines three years ago in what was then called the "Whitsun Reef Incident". It's worth remembering that at the time China claimed these were only fishing vessels seeking shelter, and that it had no plan to maintain a permanent presence at Whitsun Reef.

Follow-up: My question was, do you plan to maintain a permanent presence at the Whitsun Reef, not what is the identity of the boats that are there.

Zhao Lijian: I believe I've just made it very clear. China has no such plan.

Their continued presence three years hence proves this was a lie, as their massive size and long-term persistence remains extraordinary. The 9 May 2024 satellite photo above provided by SeaLight's imagery partners at SkyFi illustrates just how extraordinary.

Here's the same photo zoomed in and rotated 90 degrees.

Whitsun Reef ships focus May 2024.jpg
Maritime Militia at Whitsun Reef, 9 May 2024 (Image: SkyFi)

While the 82 vessels visible in the top image is impressive, it almost certainly undercounts the total number at Whitsun Reef as dozens of others are usually scattered to the west outside of the scope of this shot. A more complete count would likely be similar to the 135 spotted by the Philippine Coast Guard last November:

What are these vessels doing here? Though they identify as "fishing" vessels, they are clearly not fishing. Rather, these Spratly Backbone Fishing Vessels are earning Chinese government subsidies by simply existing here, rafted together as a floating outpost, as described in our Gray Zone Tactics Playbook post on "rafting", and as I explained in an interview with Channel News Asia last year.

Screenshot 2023-07-16 at 7.16.33 AM.png

The goal here is effective control. China does not need to build an outpost to gain and maintain control of maritime features in its neighbors' exclusive economic zones. The sheer size of its maritime militia enables it to simply overwhelm their capacity to respond.

Exit question: How long before the more modest vessel swarms at other features like Sabina Shoal and Iroquois Reef start to look like this overwhelming presence at Whitsun Reef? 

Ray Powell

Ray is the Director of SeaLight and Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He's a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and was a 2021 Fellow at Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute.

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