Iroquois Reef: Theft by Soft Occupation

Satellite images show how China is slowly stealing Iroquois Reef from the Philippines.
Ray Powell | APRIL 30, 2024
Iroquois Reef: Theft by Soft Occupation
Chinese militia ships rafted at Iroquois Reef (Image credit: Satellogic, delivered by SkyFi)

Ray Powell




China's maritime militia has once again returned to stake out its semi-permanent presence at Iroquois Reef, a feature that lies 125 nautical miles (nm) from the coast of Palawan and thus squarely within the Philippines' internationally recognized 200nm exclusive economic zone

Location of Iroquois Reef (Image credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

Recent satellite photos show the size and composition of China's current presence. This 22 April photo, obtained by SeaLight through its partnership with SkyFi, shows two groups of "rafted" ships at the southern end of the reef. 

Rafted Chinese ships at Iroquois Reef. (Image credit: Satellogic, delivered by SkyFi)

SeaLight analyst Gaute Friis described how China uses this tactic to assert its maritime claims in a post last July--part of SeaLight's 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. 

The ships are generally the component of China's People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) known as Spratly Backbone Fishing Vessels (SBFV). According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative's detailed report on the PAFMM, these SBFVs receive generous government subsidies to remain at sea for most of the year, specifically to assert Beijing's expansive maritime claims.

As indicated by SeaLight Director Ray Powell in an interview with Channel News Asia, 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.

Yet China's presence at Iroquois Reef is not limited to these SBFVs alone, but recently also included a visit by the China Coast Guard (CCG). The day before the above image was captured, SeaLight's partner Planet Labs caught CCG 4202 conducting an intrusive patrolling mission within the reef (large ship, center right of image below). 

China Coast Guard 4202 at Iroquois Shoal, 21 April 2024 (Image credit: Planet Labs)

Analyst Gaute Friis also described this gray-zone tactic in a separate post last November:

Intrusive patrolling describes how the China Coast Guard (CCG) routinely patrols within the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of other states. These patrols are a key component of China's strategy to reinforce its expansive maritime claims in disputed waters. By doing so, China aims to establish a continuous presence and gradually normalize its maritime activities in these areas.

These patrols demonstrate Beijing's resolve to create de facto jurisdiction over areas clearly granted to other nations under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

We know the specific identity of this ship because--although it has run mostly "dark" (yet another gray zone tactic) since leaving China--it briefly turned on its Automatic Information System broadcasts while visiting Iroquois Reef on the very same day this shot was captured.

China's intrusion into Iroquois Reef is not new, as has been documented by AMTI, SeaLight and the Philippine Coast Guard, which last year accused these vessels of damaging the ecosystem there. In fact, precedent suggests its presence there may actually grow throughout the year. 

This is a story of theft by soft occupation--part of what the outgoing Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral John Aquilino has called China's "boiling frog" strategy to normalize its aggressions while increasing their scope and scale over time.

One day soon we will wake up to find that yet another South China Sea frog has been fully cooked and served up for Beijing's consumption.

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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