China has deployed a large number of militia vessels to an uninhabited shoal in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The militia vessels were supposedly fishing boats but China was not actually doing any fishing activity in Sabina Shoal, just 126 nautical miles west off Palawan.

China’s goal of deploying militia vessels around Sabina Shoal, locally known as Escoda Shoal, was actually to disrupt the Philippine Coast Guard’s maritime patrol operations in the West Philippine Sea.

In a way, China has been taking control of uninhabited features in the South China Sea much closer to the Palawan shorelines.

It is illegal and a clear violation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), an informal agreement between China and the 10 member-states of Southeast Asia signed in Phnom Penh in 2002.

China can no longer occupy and build a structure on Sabina Shoal. It cannot put up an artificial island since Beijing wanted to respect and honor the DOC.

Beijing has built artificial islands on seven features it had occupied since 1988 when it dislodged the Vietnamese on Fiery Cross Reef after a brief naval battle.

That was the last armed conflict in the South China Sea after the Philippines put out a declaration in 1992 to encourage the claimant states to exercise restraint to ease tensions in the area.

The Chinese presence around Sabina Shoal is a direct threat to the Philippines’ security and sovereignty.

Every time the Philippines sends civilian boats to deliver food, fuel, and water to troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal, the Philippine Coast Guard deploys two of its 44-meter patrol boats on Sabina Shoal as a rendezvous point for the vessels on rotation and resupply (RORE) mission.

Then, the Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessels escort the civilian boats on RORE mission to Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal.

The Chinese presence on Sabina Shoal would push out the Philippine Coast Guard vessels from waters around the shoal, disrupting the RORE mission.

China’s swarming tactics in the disputed waters are not new. It has been sending ships short of blockading Philippine- and Vietnamese-occupied features in the Spratly.

Two years ago, more than 200 vessels were docked in an area near Whitsun Reef or Julian Felipe Reef deep into the Spratly chain of islands.

China displayed its overwhelming might by dwarfing the number of vessels the other claimant-states had in the South China Sea. It showed it could effectively put up a blockade, choking the occupied features of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

China has been shadowing, blocking and doing dangerous maneuvers every time the Philippine Coast Guard escorts RORE boats or conducts maritime patrol operations in the West Philippines Sea.

It had used military-grade lasers and water-cannoned RORE boats and small fishing vessels on Ayungin and Panatag shoals.

China will do everything, except firing a shot at local maritime patrol vessels or civilian fishing vessels, to stop RORE missions from succeeding.

If Ayungin and Panatag shoals have become strategically important, Sabina Shoal’s value in the RORE operations has dramatically increased.

In the past, China placed value on Sabina Shoal by installing buoys in the area shortly after Beijing seized Mischief Reef in 1995.

But the Philippines removed and confiscated the buoys and started regularly patrolling the shoal.

Two years ago, China deployed seven militia vessels around Sabina Shoal but eventually the ships were removed after the Philippines challenged their presence in the area.

This time, if the Philippines challenged China’s presence around Sabina Shoal, would they heed the coast guard challenge?