Expert says China research vessels in PH waters used for naval power buildup, too
MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines should be wary of Chinese research vessels operating in its waters because such is a pretext for naval power buildup, a maritime expert said on Wednesday (Oct. 21).
“For them, it is a means of power projection,” said Prof. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, at an online forum hosted by The Maritime League.
China, he said, has publicly acknowledged that the development of marine technology and conduct of marine scientific research (MSR) was “a means of safeguarding sovereignty and creating an atmosphere of maritime power.”
“That should be of concern to us, with respect to their marine scientific research activities in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
The Philippine government has been vocal against the deployment of Chinese warships and militia in Philippine waters, especially the West Philippine Sea. Publicized protests against Chinese research vessels, however, are not as frequent.
In September, a foreign maritime expert, citing ship-tracking data, said a Chinese research vessel had spent about a week conducting MSR within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in northwestern Luzon. This was confirmed by a military report seen by INQUIRER.net.
It’s not clear whether the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) took any diplomatic action because none was announced.
In August, Philippine Navy Chief Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo called for a diplomatic protest against the presence of two Chinese research vessels sighted near Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea which had no clearance from the Philippine government.
Batongbacal said one of the research vessels was previously owned by a petroleum company “so it was used for petroleum exploration without our consent.”
The DFA did not make public its diplomatic action, although Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he would have the report checked.
In 2019, the presence of two Chinese research vessels in Philippine-controlled waters became the subject of a diplomatic protest.
At least 15 Chinese research vessels had been spotted lingering in Philippine waters in 2019, said a report from the Department of National Defense to the Philippine Congress last year.
Operating without consent
In 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte banned all scientific research by foreigners off the Pacific coast in Philippine territory. But China largely ignored this, Batongbacal said.
Even before the moratorium was set, China conducted MSR in Philippine waters without consent. Philippine laws required permission for MSR by a foreign entity.
After the conclusion of MSR, the state that had deployed MSR vessels must provide a preliminary report and final results to the state owning the territory where MSR was conducted, according to Batongbacal. China never did.
“They did not have the consent to conduct MSR within our exclusive economic zone,” he said.
“The data and information from these cruises are not available, or in some cases they are very limited. There is no cooperation arrangement with them on this,” he added.
“Based on their published results and their own press releases, we are aware that they actually conducted survey sampling activities in the West Philippine Sea and Philippine Sea on the Pacific side,” Batongbacal said.
The Chinese have also been “servicing annually” a moored platform off Surigao “and they go to that every year,” he said.
MSR vessels are also frequently accompanied by China Coast Guard vessels to ward off any potential challengers, he added.
China has often deployed research vessels into the waters of other nations in the South China Sea and even beyond it.
“They have the most MSR vessels operating under a single state. These are the most advanced and the newest in the world,” Batongbacal said.
China claims ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, which refers to waters that form part of Philippine territory.
Aside from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea, which is crisscrossed by vital sea-lanes through which billions of dollars in global commerce passes every year and where islets, reefs, and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.