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GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc
China now patrols Philippine seas and air space. Its coast guard controls entry into and the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal, 120 miles off Luzon. Paramilitary fleets increasingly are fishing in the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Warships venture close to Zambales and Mindoro in the West Philippine Sea. Chinese aircraft regularly confront Philippine flights to Pag-asa Island in Palawan’s Kalayaan Island Group. Maritime research vessels are exploring the Philippine western seabed as well as Benham Rise off Cagayan, and Samar and Surigao in the east. All these are in breach of international law.
Maritime law expert Dr. Jay Batongbacal sounded the alarm in a recent forum on Manila’s arbitral victory against Beijing. He called for renewed government resolve to regain Philippine access to its legal entitlements under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Manila should strike up agreements to avoid skirmishes.
Batongbacal presented this situationer to the Stratbase-Albert del Rosario Institute:
• Satellite data indicate increased foreign fishing since 2012 within the WPS. Chinese fishing vessels, including the maritime militia, operate freely near Macclesfield Bank west of Luzon.
• Chinese coast guards patrol the waters around artificial islands that China reclaimed from reefs in the Philippine EEZ.
• Military fortifications in the artificial islands enable China to operate 24/7 in the Spratlys, including the Kalayaan Islands. Chinese Navy and Coast Guard vessels frequently are sighted there.
• With the completion of anti-aircraft air defenses in the artificial islands, expect Chinese influence and presence in the Spratlys to expand to the air. Last year Philippine aircraft were challenged every time they approached to land on Pag-asa Island.
• China’s Coast Guard maintains constant “law enforcement” presence in Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine Coast Guard is no longer able to approach the shoal beyond a certain distance. As Chinese fishing there intensifies, Filipino fishing has become limited. The initial response of the Duterte government was a proposal to turn Scarborough into a marine protected area. That would mean preventing our fishermen from fishing in the shoal. A similar proposal was voiced for the Spratlys. Protecting marine resources is good, but if done in the face of intensified Chinese fishing, we would in effect limit our own fishing in that area.
• Constant military, paramilitary, and law enforcement presence has enabled China to gain control, and deny access, to the WPS.
• Chinese vessels operate in the area between Scarborough and the Philippine coast of Zambales. Last December a Chinese vessel seized a US Navy sea drone only 90 kilometers from Subic Bay.
• Chinese military vessels are also sighted off the coast of Mindoro, the Armed Forces reported to Congress early this year.
• Also early this year a Chinese surveillance aircraft nearly collided with an American patrol plane over Scarborough Shoal. It was called an “unexpected encounter” and “unsafe encounter.” That indicates the regularity of Chinese air presence. China announced in July 2016 that it will be conducting combat air patrols over Scarborough. A picture was released in the Chinese media of a Chinese nuclear-capable bomber flying over the shoal.
• Similarly in the Spratlys is an increase of Chinese air activity. Expect this to intensify when the island fortresses become fully operational.
• China has deployed a new instrument of national power: marine science research. Research vessels have been operating around the Spratlys. The results of these activities are even publicly announced in their media. Oceanographic experiments involved deep-diving submersibles in the South China Sea and the oil-rich Reed Bank within the Philippine EEZ.
• The sightings in Benham Rise east of Luzon were part of China’s “West Pacific Ocean Systems Project.” That five-year program includes the installation of an instrument platform off Cagayan.
• Chinese vessels spent some time just off Bicol, then proceeded to collect seabed specimens in the waters of Samar and Surigao. Two Chinese scientific journals reported the installation of an instrument platform 80 kilometers off Surigao.
“Control of access means control of the sea,” Batongbacal says. “What we see here is China gaining more and more access, while the Philippines is giving up access. We are no longer exploring for petroleum in our seas, whereas Chinese research activities have expanded.”
The ASEAN, which Manila chairs on its 50th year this 2017, is trying to pin down China to a Code of Conduct on the disputed seas. That Code would require a moratorium on aggressive acts. By the time China is ready to sign such Code, it would have expanded its access to Philippine waters in light of Philippine acquiescence. Manila would not be able to recover what it is giving up today.
“We are not doing enough to protect our interests,” rues Batongbacal who heads the University of the Philippines-Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. “And for what? In order to establish good relations? In order to be secure in promises of loans and weapons?”
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