Only conjecture——AMTI misread satellite images of Zhongye Dao (Thitu Island), provoked fake ‘crisis’

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2019-03-25 | Hu Bo

With regard to the "Zhongye Dao Crisis" provoked by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the incumbent Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. has played down AMTI's report that Chinese vessels have been gathering near Zhongye Dao (Thitu Island), saying that no reports of increased number of Chinese vessels had been received, as quoted by The Philippine Daily Inquirer on February 14.

Since last week, the phantom "Zhongye Dao Crisis" has been spread after AMTI alleged in a report on February 6 that some 100 Chinese vessels had been employed around Zhongye Dao in response to new construction by the Philippines.

AMTI claimed that a handful of Chinese vessels had operated in the area between Zhubi Jiao (Subi Reef) and Zhongye Dao since July 2018 likely as a response to the initial Philippine efforts to start runway repair last May. And their numbers increased to at least 24 on December 3. China employed concentric layers of fishing, law enforcement, and naval vessels around the area, which was called "cabbage strategy." In five subsequent satellite images captured from mid-December to late January, the numbers fluctuated, reaching a high of 95 on December 20 before dropping to 42 by January 26.

The report seemed to draw a link between the Philippines and China's stake. What was actually happening near the island?


Wrong conclusion

It is not hard to see that AMTI jumped to the wrong conclusion from the satellite images it released and information publicly available.

First, Chinese vessels were not found engaging in intensive activities directed at Zhongye Dao as the island is not on the satellite image released by AMTI. The image mainly shows the lagoon around Zhongye Qunjiao (Thitu Island and reefs) instead. Zhongye Dao is located east to the location shown on the image. (See Picture 1) 

According to some common sense, vessels and airplanes sending supplies to Zhongye Dao (illegally occupied by the Philippines) depart from Palawan Island, which is located southeast of Zhongye Dao. Therefore, the Philippines' supply ships and planes commute in the east and south areas of Zhongye Dao. However, Chinese vessels on the satellite image were on the waters west of Zhongye Dao, never interrupting or blocking the Philippines' supply to Zhongye Dao or even touching on the so-called cabbage strategy. The report attempted to make a fuss by confusing Zhongye Dao with lagoon of Zhongye Qunjiao.

Second, activities of Chinese vessels in the area are within the normal range. Waters near Zhongye Qunjiao have long been Chinese fishermen's traditional tropical fishing grounds in the South China Sea. In addition to Chinese fishing boats, many fishing boats from the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia also operate in the area. Therefore, it's quite normal to see fishing boat clusters in the area.

When China ended its long-time annual fishing moratorium in the South China Sea on August 16, 2018, which was started on May 1, a number of fishing boats sailed toward the fishing grounds in the South China Sea. It's not surprising to see them operating around.

AMTI seemed to stress the fluctuation of numbers of Chinese vessels in December, however, the number increases likely because of the rising demand for seafood in the upcoming Chinese Spring Festival. Chinese vessels in the AMTI report are more likely a cluster of working Chinese fishing boats, while few law enforcement vessels were there to supervise their operation. 

Moreover, the image taken by Chinese satellite "SuperView-1" (See Picture 2) on December 26, 2018 supports that there was no vessel around Zhongye Dao except for two fishing boats southwest sailing northwest. Obviously, "Zhongye Dao Crisis" is nothing but sheer conjecture after misreading the images.


Stability at sea

Besides, supposing there was crisis arising on Zhongye Dao, we're confident that China and the Philippines are able to handle the issue properly with adequate channels and wisdom. Unprovoked "surround" is never an option for Chinese people. Such an irresponsible and invalid conjecture serves no good purpose to the existing stability in the South China Sea but only shows its desire to see the region in disorder.

Currently, situation in the South China Sea has been cooled down with the joint efforts of China and ASEAN member states. The international community should cease the unnecessary hype on the South China Sea and believe that regional countries are willing and able to shelve disputes and manage differences, and contribute to the stability in the South China Sea.

Hu Bo

Hu Bo, Research Professor and Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies, Peking University, and Director of SCSPI. His areas of specialization include maritime strategy, international security, and Chinese diplomacy. He has written three books and more than 40 journal articles and book chapters on topics related to China’s maritime strategy and policy. His most recent books published in Chinese are as follows: China’s Maritime Power in 2049 (Beijing, China Development Press, 2015); China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era (Beijing, Ocean Press, 2018); and forthcoming: Chinese Maritime Power in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2019).