Chinese ships return to Sabina Shoal

Satellite imagery from November 18th indicates that 12-14 Chinese fishing/militia ships are now working at Sabina Shoal after months of a reduced presence.
Ray Powell | NOVEMBER 18, 2023
Chinese ships return to Sabina Shoal

Ray Powell




Satellite imagery from November 18th indicates that 12-14 probable Chinese fishing/militia ships are now working illegally at Sabina (Escoda) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, after several months of a reduced presence. As recently as 12 November there were only 3 ships visible there, but imagery from Planet Labs now clearly shows 12 ships, with suggestions that at least 2 more may be present but were partially covered by a cloud.

As is nearly always the case with these fleets operating in Philippine waters, the ships are not detectable on automatic information system (AIS) receivers, which indicates that they have either gone entirely "dark" (turned their AIS transponders off) or that they are broadcasting weaker "Class B" AIS signals to evade detection from distant terrestrial- and satellite-based receivers.

Meanwhile, previous SeaLight reporting has shown that the number of Chinese ships at Iroquois (Rozul) Reef dropped dramatically from November 11th to November 12th. It isn't clear whether any of the vessels now at Sabina were previously at Iroquois.

While number of ships at Sabina Shoal has increased, it has not yet reached the levels of early 2023, when up to 26 ships were seen there by Philippine Coast Guard patrols and by SeaLight via commercial imagery.

The Spratly Backbone Fishing Fleet--a segment of the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia--is known to operate regularly at both Sabina Shoal and Iroquois Reef. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative's outstanding 2021 report, Pulling Back the Curtain on China's Maritime Militia, these ships "are a subset of domestic fishing vessels that meet certain minimum requirements of length, tonnage, and power that operate in the Spratly Islands to fulfill political goals on behalf of the Chinese government", and each ship is required to operate in these contested areas for at least 280 days per year in order to receive subsidies from the national government of around $1 million per year.

Sabina Shoal is within 75-80 nautical miles (nm) of the Philippine island of Palawan, which is well within the Philippines' lawful 200nm exclusive economic zone, which gives the Philippines "sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources" according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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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