Chinese coastguard vessels maintain a near-constant presence around reefs claimed by Malaysia in the South China Sea, ship-tracking data shared with the Guardian has revealed.
The findings show the extent of Beijing’s military ambitions far south of its borders, antagonising south-east Asian countries and deepening a potentially explosive foreign policy crisis with the US president, Donald Trump.
During the first two months of 2017, three Chinese ships patrolled the Luconia Shoals, an area of islets and reefs that are more than 1,000 miles (1,600km) from mainland China and only about 90 miles (145 km) north of Malaysian Borneo.
The ships were traced by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the non-profit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS).
The US-based groups said the two months were not unusual and were consistent with regular rotations of up to 11 Chinese patrol ships it had traced in the area since late 2015.
Control over the South China Sea, a route for half the world’s commercial shipping, has become a major international conflict point, with Beijing asserting sovereignty over maritime areas also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Japan.
China has spent years reclaiming reefs and last month completed three major military bases in the region that have naval, air, radar and missile-defence facilities.
The issue is expected to be high on the agenda for a meeting between Trump and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who will visit the US on Thursday.
Chinese vessels with armed personnel…
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