Senators warn of China ‘playbook’: Reef damage, then reclamation

(INQUIRER) MANILA, Philippines — Senators on Monday said the destruction of coral reefs in Escoda (Sabina) Shoal could be a portent of things to come, including the possibility of reclamation activities by China in Philippine waters.

SORRY SIGHT | A recent survey conducted by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in Escoda (Sabina) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea shows the destruction of the coral bed in the area, which has been blamed on the Chinese. (Photo from the Philippine Coast Guard)

Also on Monday, a maritime law expert warned of a collapse of the country’s fisheries in the West Philippine Sea if damage to marine life continues.

Asked if the destruction of seabed in the West Philippine Sea, as reported by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Sunday, could be in preparation for reclamation activities by China, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said, “That’s possible.”

“That has been their guidebook and playbook since the beginning. They want to destroy an area first and then they reclaim it. That’s why we have to remain vigilant,” he told the Inquirer in an interview, noting that China’s illegal structures in the West Philippine Sea followed its decimation of marine resources.

Sen. Francis Tolentino shared Zubiri’s suspicion, noting that Escoda Shoal’s proximity to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Palawan province made it important to conduct patrols in the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Tolentino on Monday shared with reporters several underwater photos of the area showing piles of damaged corals and the discoloration of the seabed.

“Aside from harvesting and damaging the corals, they may have other plans,” said the vice chair of the Senate foreign relations committee. “The destruction of the corals could be a prelude to reclamation.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, in a statement late Monday said: “We are seriously concerned about reports of the destruction of corals in Rozul Reef, a maritime feature located in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The Philippines has consistently raised the alarm over ecologically harmful activities, conducted by foreign vessels, in our maritime zones, an issue extensively discussed in the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea.”

It added: “We, therefore, call on everyone concerned to act responsibly and cease all activities that can damage our precious marine environment. The well-being of millions of people who depend on the South China Sea for their livelihood is at stake.”

Budget for PCG, Navy

Zubiri assured the PCG and the Philippine Navy that they would receive a bigger slice of the government’s budget for 2024.

“[Next year’s] budget is critical. This is the time that we have to put our money where our mouth is. This is the time that we need to increase the budget for [the acquisition of] ships, patrol crafts and marine research centers,” the Senate leader said, adding that his chamber is committed to providing as much as P600 million to set up marine radio stations in several coastal communities in the country.

Sen. Ronald dela Rosa said the government should conduct a scientific assessment to determine the actual damage to the area. The Coast Guard has time and again reported the presence of Chinese vessels in waters surrounding these shoals.

“We should keep exposing the evil deeds they have done [in our territorial waters] so that the whole world will know,” Dela Rosa said.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, chair of the Senate national defense committee, urged the appropriate state agencies to work together in raising “awareness and consciousness on maritime and archipelagic issues and concerns [and on] our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Intrusions beyond WPS

Meanwhile, University of the Philippines (UP) law professor Jay Batongbacal, in a television interview, said the marine destruction in the West Philippine Sea would be a “huge blow” to the country’s food security, since these waters contribute 27 to 30 percent of the country’s capture fisheries, or the harvesting of marine life there.

“The worst-case scenario for us, as a country that depends on marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, is that this will lead to the collapse of the fisheries in that area,” he told CNN Philippines.

“The bigger threat there is that if this area collapses, the sustainability of other areas, such as the inter-island waters of the Philippines to which the West Philippine Sea is ecologically and biologically connected, that will also suffer,” he added.

Batongbacal, the director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, warned of intrusions beyond the West Philippine Sea once this area is depleted of resources.

“We could see them intruding even more frequently into the Sulu Sea and into the waters of [the] Visayas, looking for these resources. Over the longer term, that is the bigger environmental and ecological threat to us,” he pointed out.

Apart from the West Philippine Sea, there have been earlier reports of China’s interest in waters east of Luzon, notably the area of Philippine Rise.

Batongbacal said only China was capable of such activities, as it did before in other reefs for their artificial island building.