Go Beyond the Scarborough Shoal Headlines with AI Insights 

Border Security & Intelligence

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    The South China Sea Heats Up…

    The “great power competition” flared up this week. Filipino protesters sent a flotilla of approximately 100 fishing boats in the direction of the South China Sea – more specifically, Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by the Philippines and China.  

    Beijing’s coast guard and ships suspected of being connected to militias have used  powerful water cannons in the past. Ray Powell, Director of the SeaLight project at Stanford University, tweeted about the expected heavy resistance from China: 

    The peaceful flotilla’s main goal is to call attention to alleged Chinese aggression and expansionist ambitions. 

    An AP article explains why these encounters are worthy of attention: 

    “The Philippines has released videos of its territorial faceoffs with China and invited journalists to witness the hostilities in the high seas in a strategy to gain international support, sparking a word war with Beijing.

    The increasing frequency of the skirmishes between the Philippines and China has led to minor collisions, injured Filipino navy personnel and damaged supply boats in recent months. It has sparked fears the territorial disputes could degenerate into an armed conflict between China and the United States, a longtime treaty ally of the Philippines.” 

    Let’s go beyond the headlines with some insights from Windward’s Maritime AI™ platform…

    There’s Recently Been an Escalation 

    The Philippine and American navies conducted their annual military exercise, the Balikatan Drill, in the South China Sea within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ), on April 22, 2024. The drill was expected to conclude on May 10.

    In recent weeks, there have been indications of “light” military force, especially the usage of water cannons by Chinese naval vessels, in the Scarborough Shoal. This area is located in the EEZ of the Philippines, but is part of the ongoing South China Sea dispute. In a recent incident, Chinese coast guard vessels fired their water cannons at Philippine patrol vessels.The Scarborough Shoal and Rozul Reef are located 184 nautical miles (NM) East of Manilla, inside the Philippines’ EEZ. The area has seen an increasing Chinese naval and maritime militia presence in the past year and U.S. officials claim that China has set a “semi-permanent” presence there.

    Map of South China Sea
    Map of the major disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea – Scarborough Shoal, Subi Reef, and Whitson Reef

    More High Risk Vessels and Dark Activity 

    Windward’s AI insights show a significant increase in the number of vessels at  high/moderate risk to be involved in illicit activities operating in the Scarborough Shoal. There has been a sharp increase in slow-speed activity (sailing under three knots) by high/moderate risk vessels in the past year, especially since November 2023. There was a 1,200% increase in slow-speed activities conducted in the Scarborough Shoal by high/moderate vessels (November 2023-February 2024), compared to a 70% increase in the same period last year. Another increase occurred between March-April 2024. It was a 60% rise, compared to a 37% decrease in March-April 2023. April 2024 marks the highest number of slow-speed activities in the shoal in the past two years.

    Slow-speed activities by high/moderate risk vessels in Scarborough Shoal. January 2022-April 2024.

    There was an increase in the number of dark activities conducted by high/moderate risk vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, plus a 172% rise in dark activities by high/moderate risk vessels (November 2023-March 2024). This is compared to the same period last year, which “only” showed a 94% increase. It should also be noted that March 2024 showed the highest number of dark activities in the last two years.

    Dark activities by high/moderate vessels in Scarborough Shoal. January 2022-April 2024.

    Heavy Presence 

    Almost half of all vessels engaging in slow-speed and dark activities were Chinese-flagged fishing vessels (based on Windward research and open sources, these vessels are affiliated with the Chinese navy via the Chinese Maritime Militia {CMM}).

    Scarborough Shoal
    Optical satellite imagery showing four “dark” vessels in the Scarborough Shoal. April 19, 2024.
    Likely military vessels anchored at the Scarborough Shoal, May 7, 2024.
    Likely military vessels anchored at the Scarborough Shoal, May 7, 2024.

    The presence of Chinese military and CMM vessels in the South China Sea, or their entry to the EEZ of the Philippines, are not new phenomena. However, as can be seen, 2024 is showing unusual increases in dark activities and slow speed activities by Chinese military vessels around the Scarborough Shoal. This too might indicate a possible escalation of activity by the Chinese government in the area.

    Diplomacy By Another Name? 

    The recent deceptive shipping practices (DSPs) and show of power by Chinese-flagged ships can be seen as accelerated “maritime diplomacy” between China and the “Quad states” (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia).

    It is also an escalation of the geopolitical tensions between China and its neighboring countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Analysts say that Admiral Hu Zhongming, China’s new commander of the People Liberation’s Army Navy (PLAN), is pushing towards a more active maritime presence in the area. This can be seen in the South China Sea and with the launch of new naval vessels, such as the Fujian aircraft carrier, China’s third and largest aircraft carrier, launched on its maiden voyage on May 1, 2024.

    Windward will continue to monitor the great power competition, as it unfolds at sea, and provide you with AI insights, so you understand the latest trends and how to proceed. 

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