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Vessels have been present at the Scarborough Shoal, off the Philippines, for five months, at Vanguard Bank, to the south of Vietnam, for three months, and at the Union Banks, where China and Vietnam have outposts, for seven months. China’s coast guard and military remain ever-present as it claims sovereignty over most of the region – despite countries disagreeing with their declaration.
Beijing has been locked in maritime disputes with other coastal states in the South China Sea for years, but in recent months has increased its presence as other countries are battling coronavirus outbreaks.
Because of this, the US has accused China of bullying its neighbours but Beijing says the West is interfering and endangering security by also deploying naval vessels to the region.
Satellite images show Chinese maritime militia vessel, identified as ‘Yue Tai Yu’ near Mischief Reef on September 28. Mischief Reef is one of China’s biggest artificial islands and military bases in the South China Sea.
The images, taken by private satellite image company PlanetLabs Inc and analysed by RFA, show hundreds of fishing vessels in The Union Banks area on September 26, with China’s militia among them.
Scarborough Shoal, claimed by the Philippines, is located close to the country’s island of Luzon and the China Coast Guard (CCG) has placed ships in the area since May 5, ship tracking data shows.
The shoal, a shallow triangle of sand known for featuring giant clams, has been occupied by the Chinese since 2012.
CCG ships have also been sitting close to Second Thomas Shoal to the south since late September, an area also claimed by the Philippines.
Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, added: “China uses the maritime militia to bolster claims in the disputed waters, and so does Vietnam despite them investing in building up their navies and maritime law enforcement agencies.
“It might be appropriate to see maritime militia as part of the ‘whole of nation’ or ‘whole of society’ approach in securing national maritime interests.”
Renato Cruz de Castro, a professor at De La Salle University in Manila, said the Philippines will “have to look at China suspiciously” while the vessels remain present.
At the Vietnam-claimed Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands, the CCG has remained present since July.
China claims ownership of the area but it sits on Vietnam’s continental shelf and is within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
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It is close to oil fields which are licensed to international companies for exploration – and state oil company PetroVietnam.
In recent months, the Vietnamese government has not commented on the presence of the CCG but it has contested other aspects of Beijing’s involvement in the South China Sea, such as military drills at the Paracel Islands, also claimed by Vietnam.
Vietnam’s claim to the Union Banks, a circle of shallow reefs and rocks in the Spratly Islands, is also threatened by Chinese presence.
The fishing grounds are home to both Vietnamese and Chinese outposts, separated by two nautical miles.
Since March, between four and 12 Chinese military boats have lurked in the area, alongside dozens of fishing boats.
More than 100 fishing boats and other vessels were sighted at Union Banks on Sep 26 alone.
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