Home Economy Philippines belies China’s claim of reef damage from rusted warship

Philippines belies China’s claim of reef damage from rusted warship


By John Victor D. Ordoñez, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES on Tuesday belied China’s claim that its military outpost at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea has damaged the area’s marine and coral reef ecosystem.

“It is China who has been found to have caused irreparable damage to corals,” Jonathan E. Malaya, spokesman of the country’s task force on the South China Sea and assistant director-general of the National Security Council, said in a statement.

“It is China that has caused untold damage to the maritime environment and jeopardized the natural habitat and livelihood of thousands of Filipino fisherfolk,” he added.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

Chinese state media Global Times published a report on Monday that said the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal “seriously damaged the diversity, stability and sustainability” of the coral reef ecosystem in the area.

The Philippines has a handful of soldiers at the shoal, where it grounded the World War II-era ship in 1999 to bolster its sea claim.

The “illegally grounded” warship had caused concentrations of heavy metals such as dissolved inorganic phosphorus in the seawater, it said, citing Chinese marine scientists.

“By ruling out these potential natural causes, Chinese researchers are confident that the damage and degradation of the coral reef ecosystem at Ren’ai Jiao can be attributed primarily to the grounded military vessel and related human activities,” Hu Yuwei and Zhao Juecheng said in the report.

“The accusation against the Philippines by so-called Chinese experts is false and a classic misdirection,” Mr. Malaya said.

The shoal is about 200 kilometers from the Philippine island of Palawan and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass, Hainan Island.

China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a 1940s map, which a United Nations-backed arbitration court voided in 2016 for being illegal.

The Philippines has failed to enforce the ruling and has since filed hundreds of protests over what it calls encroachment and harassment by China’s coast guard and its vast fishing fleet.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in a December study said China’s dredging and giant clam harvesting have damaged at least 21,000 acres of coral reefs in the South China Sea. The Chinese Embassy has questioned the study’s results, saying it only relied on satellite imagery.

Last week, the Philippines and China resumed talks to ease tensions in the waterway, days after a standoff at Second Thomas Shoal.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the sea.

Meanwhile, the recently signed defense pact between the Philippines and Japan that eases entry of equipment and troops for combat training is unlikely to ease Chinese aggression at sea, according to security and political analysts.

“China would likely show that the reciprocal access agreement does and would not deter it from its activities, whether in the East or South China Seas,” Lucio B. Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“As in the case of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement expansion with the US, China may even double down on its pressure against the Philippines,” he added.

Manila and Tokyo signed the military pact in Manila on Monday in time for the visit of Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa and Defense Minister Minoru Kihara for a 2+2 ministerial meeting.

Beijing is likely to double down on its aggression, Hansley A. Juliano, who teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“They take everything as a provocation these days, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we must,” he said.

At a news briefing late Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said the Asia-Pacific region does not need a military bloc, adding that Japan should “reflect” on its colonial rule over the region during World War II.

“Japan needs to reflect on that part of history and act prudently in fields related to military and security,” he said.

“Any move that undermines regional peace and stability, and harms regional solidarity and cooperation will be met with vigilance and opposition from people in regional countries.”

Japan, which last year announced its biggest military build-up since World War II in a step away from its post-war pacifism, does not have any claims to the South China Sea, but has a separate maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea, where they have repeatedly faced off.

It has supported the Philippines’ position in the South China Sea and has expressed serious concern over China’s actions, including recent incidents that resulted in damage to Philippine vessels and injured a Filipino sailor.

The defense partnership is not targeted against any party, but is crucial to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, Ms. Kamikawa told a news briefing in Taguig City on Monday.

“Japan in particular is emerging and is asserting itself as a regional security leader, which will be crucial for deterring Beijing’s aggressive moves,” Raymond M. Powell, a fellow at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, said in an X message.

Senators will scrutinize the defense deal like “other treaties that the Senate is asked to ratify by the Executive, regardless of whether it agitates another country,” Senate President Francis G. Escudero on Tuesday told reporters in a Viber message on Monday.

Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” R. Marcos, who heads the foreign relations committee, said senators would go through every line in the treaty to ensure it does not go against national interests.

“We welcome having stronger security ties with our neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region,” she said in a statement on Monday.

The Philippines has a visiting forces agreement with the United States and Australia. Tokyo, which hosts the biggest concentration of US forces abroad, has a similar deal with Australia and Britain, and is negotiating another with France.

The reciprocal access agreement will take effect after it is ratified by both countries’ Parliaments.

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