UPDATE: China's maritime militia has returned to Sabina Shoal

As of 4 March 2024, 21 vessels--likely belonging to China's People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM)--were "rafted" together at Sabina Shoal within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, a mere 75 nautical miles from the coast of Palawan. Another 5 were spotted just to their northwest on 6 March.
Ray Powell | MARCH 11, 2024
UPDATE: China's maritime militia has returned to Sabina Shoal
PRC People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) at Sabina Shoal, 4 March 2024, courtesy of SkyFi and IMPRO

Ray Powell




11 March updates: Thanks again to our partners at SkyFi (and theirs at IMPRO), we now have stunning new 50cm-resolution images of China's 21 rafted maritime militia vessels at Sabina Shoal, within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone and just 75 nautical miles from the Palawan coastline.


Meanwhile, open-source intelligence sleuth MT Anderson noted a fourth group of five more rafted militia vessels a bit further northwest, making for a total of 26 known Chinese militia vessels at Sabina Shoal as of 6 March. 

For more background and context about what these ships are and how Beijing uses this behavior to reinforce its extraordinary sovereignty or jurisdictional claims, please reference my original post below.

Original post (4 March): SeaLight first spotted these vessels on imagery of Sabina Shoal last week and concluded they began arriving between 21 and 22 February, based on a comparison of low-resolution images obtained via Planet and Sentinel. Then, working with our partners at SkyFi, we were able to generate these first high-resolution images on 3 March. 

Screenshot 2024-03-05 at 3.58.24 PM.png

Subsequent low-resolution imagery indicates they are still in the same location as of 5 March.

SeaLight previously documented 12-14 militia ships scattered around Sabina Shoal in November, and the Philippine Coast Guard logged their presence there in the summer of 2023, but this is the first time we've seen them rafted together and in this southeast part of the shoal since February through April of last year:

SeaLight analyst Gaute Friis described the "rafting" tactic these vessels are employing in a blog post last July, the first in our Gray Zone Tactics Playbook series: 

"Rafting refers to the gray zone tactic of tying ships together at anchor to establish semi-persistent floating outposts that are difficult to disperse due to their collective mass ... this gray zone tactic enables the PAFMM to effectively occupy features without the cost of new construction activity, while also being able to claim that the presence of its ships is both legal and unremarkable.

I further explained why China uses this gray-zone tactic during a July 2023 interview with CNA News:

Screenshot 2023-07-16 at 7.16.33 AM.png

Based on these vessels' behavior and on last year's observations, SeaLight concludes with high confidence that these ships are drawn from the PAFMM's Spratly Backbone Fleet (SBF). 

According to our friends at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the SBF is comprised of "commercial vessels subsidized to operate in disputed waters to support Chinese sovereignty claims." These vessels, as "the segment of the militia recruited from among the ranks of China’s commercial fishing vessels, take an extended winter vacation, as they are only required to spend 280 days of the year in disputed waters to earn their subsidies.

This annual winter vacation would explain why they are just now arriving back at Sabina Shoal following the Lunar New Year holiday.

For more background on what we're seeing at Sabina Shoal, "rafting", the maritime militia and what it all means, check out this video that I put together with SkyFi over the weekend:

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.

More Articles

Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Pretext to Escalate
While other countries treat maritime incidents as crises to be deescalated, Beijing seizes upon them as pretext for calculated escalations, by which it means to reset the board in its favor.
It's time for U.S. troops to visit Thitu Island
The U.S. has long kept its distance from the occupied South China Sea features, holding to the notion that keeping the status quo was crucial to avoiding conflict. Unfortunately, Beijing interpreted this reticence as weakness and gutted that status quo, while America's treaty ally, the Philippines, bore the brunt of China's gray-zone expansionism. The journey toward reclaiming the initiative can start with a single, modest step--sending U.S. & Philippine military doctors and engineers to Thitu Island.
Infographic: Chinese Provocations in the South China Sea
A quick-reference guide to South China Sea hotspots.
sealight logo
Contact Us