China Stationing Military and Dredging Vessels at Scarborough Shoal

On Sunday, September 4, the Philippine navy observed ten Chinese vessels stationed a mile off of Scarborough shoal.  The ten ships included four Chinese Coast Guard vessels and six others, including dredgers ‘‘‘ a significant uptick from the usual Chinese flotilla that has been stationed at the shoal since seizing it in 2012.

Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana also accused the Chinese of concealing military vessels as civilian ships.  Construction on Scarborough Shoal is viewed by many as a provocative milestone in terms of Chinese expansion into Philippine territory, with Mr. Lorenzana saying on September 6, ‘‘‘If they try to construct anything in Scarborough, it will have a far-reaching adverse effect on the security situation.‘  Beijing tried to send dredging barges to the shoal earlier this year, but as of yet, there is no evidence of reclamation activity.

A number of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOE) have been involved in other South China Sea island-building activities, most prominently CCCC Dredging and the China Harbour Engineering Corporation (CHEC).  More information on the corporate identity or ownership behind Chinese assets making up the flotilla is not presently available, but Beijing‘s track record elsewhere in the South China Sea is likely instructive.  In short, there is a high likelihood of similar actors being present.

Despite the territorial dispute, the Philippines has asserted that they still desire a close friendship with China.  Before this recent news, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stated that he expects official talks with China over this dispute occurring in the coming year, but not to be brought up at the September ASEAN meeting.