Beijing is likely to send more coastguard vessels on port calls to try to take the rough edges off the service’s image as part of a militia fleet used to press territorial claims in the South China Sea , analysts said. That assessment came after vessel 5204 paid the coastguard’s first “friendly visit” to the Philippines on Monday, in a move designed to strengthen its humanitarian credentials. The 5204 put in at Manila South Harbour carrying aid packages for the thousands who were displaced by or have fled the Taal volcano in Batangas province. That erupted on Sunday, sending lava and ash hundreds of metres into the air and prompting the evacuation of an area within a 14km (nine-mile) radius of the site. Beijing and Manila also exchanged views on maritime law enforcement and other common concerns at a meeting that began on Tuesday and ended on Thursday. Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the visit helped to soften the Chinese coastguard’s image, which was shaped by the perception that it was a coercive force. “Beijing is also hoping to use this visit as a ‘model example’ to demonstrate that rival coastguards can cooperate despite the disputes, with the hope that other South China Sea claimants in Southeast Asia will follow suit with similar exchanges,” he said. But Koh said he doubted the visit, or the aid for volcano survivors, would be enough to alter the negative perception of China in the Philippines. Beijing continues to ignore a 2016 international tribunal ruling in favour of Manila, a ruling which undermined sweeping claims by China to most of the disputed waters. Why fishing boats are on the territorial front lines of the South China Sea The 5204’s visit took place as tensions in the South China Sea flared once again, with China coastguard ships patrolling in waters administered by neighbours including the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. Last year, China sent the coastguard to escort survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 into Vanguard Bank, a disputed reef in the Spratly Islands chain claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi, triggering a stand-off with Vietnam. A coastguard ship also patrolled the Luconia Breakers, a reef cluster at the southern end of the Spratlys that houses an oil and gas block licensed to Sarawak Shell, a Malaysian petroleum company. Zhou Chenming, a Beijing based military commentator, said China was expected to increase the coastguard’s friendly visits to help avoid misunderstandings between neighbours. “It can help other countries to understand us better and cut down miscalculations – a way that can help decrease confrontations at sea,” he said. Manila was not the first overseas port call destination for China’s coastguard. That distinction belongs to the city of Hai Phong in northeast Vietnam, which was visited in November 2016. However friendly China’s gesture might have appeared, the coastguard diplomacy was not well received in all parts of the Philippines. Representative Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro city, the chairman of the house’s committee on constitutional amendments, said the coastguard and its crews should not be welcomed as they were an instrument of the Chinese government used to harass and intimidate Philippine fishermen in the country’s own exclusive economic zone. In September, a report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, of US think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Chinese coastguard vessels spent 70 per cent of the past year patrolling in an area of the South China Sea that was claimed by Malaysia . Chinese coastguard ships also patrolled near the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku Islands by Japan, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by Beijing but controlled by Tokyo. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.