MANILA, Philippines — The grounding of a United States minesweeper ship on Tubbataha Reef and its increasing damage on the marine sanctuary and protected area in the Sulu Sea was apparently not on the agenda when a delegation of US lawmakers met with Philippine officials on Monday.
Officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said discussions between the Philippine and US sides instead focused on furthering long-standing defense and economic ties between the two countries.
Environmental issues were discussed broadly, with focus on Philippine initiatives on preparing for and mitigating the impact of climate change, officials said.
“There was a discussion of the leadership of the Philippines in terms of conservation of the environment,” said Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for American Affairs Carlos Sorreta, who was present in the meeting.
Asked if there was an opportunity to talk about the Tubbataha Reef accident, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia said after the meeting: “I think not really. Secretary Paje (Environment Secretary Ramon Paje) mentioned it a bit but there was not much of a discussion.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Energy Secretary Carlos Petilla and Paje led the hour-long discussion with the US delegation headed by US Congress Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce at the DFA Tuesday morning.
In the US contingent were US Representatives Gregory Meeks, Vern Buchanan, Eliot Engel, Matthew James Salmon and Thomas Anthony Marino.
Among the group, Meeks, Buchanan and Engel are listed as members of the influential US House of Representatives’ International Conservation Caucus.
On its website, the ICC counted this statement as one of its guiding principles: “Protected areas are a cornerstone of successful and sustainable conservation.”
Asked later why the ship grounding was not discussed, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, said: “I do not know why that issue was not discussed.”
The USS Guardian, a 68-meter Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship, got stuck on the reef within a protected area of the Sulu Sea before dawn on Jan. 17 en route to its port call in Indonesia. It had just come from a resupply, refueling, and rest and recreation stop at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City.
US officials have apologized for the accident, saying it recognized the importance of the Unesco World Heritage site and vowed to pay damages on the reef. Philippine and US authorities are now working on removing the ship off the reef while preventing further damage to the delicate marine ecosystem.
Concerned Philippine groups have condemned the ship grounding, demanding US accountability as they feared that the reef damage might further impact marine life in its surrounding waters.
Cuisia said much of the discussion between Philippine and US officials dealt with continuing the defense and economic partnership between the two countries.
“Of course, the usual, enhancing further the defense and security relationship and of course Chairman Royce noted very favorable relations that the US and PH have had particularly this past year and a half. They talked about the economic relationship also,” said Cuisia.
De Lima, meanwhile, discussed Philippine efforts to address human trafficking and human rights violations, causes to which the US government has provided technical and funding support.
Hernandez said the US lawmakers were also interested in a possible energy investment in the Philippines.
Manila is among the stops in Royce’s first foreign trip as chair of the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs chair.
The DFA said Royce “has been one of the strongest supporters… of closer Philippine-US relations” in the US Congress, especially in the areas of security and economic cooperation.