Philippines raises alarm over marine damage in areas frequented by Chinese vessels

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MANILA: The Philippine Coast Guard confirmed on Monday extensive marine environmental damage in areas frequented by the “Chinese maritime militia,” at a time when Philippine authorities are doubling efforts on maritime surveillance in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The Philippines has recorded vessels believed to be part of the “Chinese maritime militia” on multiple occasions so far this year, which authorities said were present within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“The continued swarming for indiscriminate illegal and destructive fishing activities of the Chinese Maritime Militia in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal may have directly caused the degradation and destruction of the marine environment in the WPS features,” PCG spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said in a statement.

He was referring to surveys conducted from Aug. 9 to Sept. 11 on parts of the West Philippine Sea, or the Philippine portion of the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels have been periodically spotted in recent months.

“The PCG launched missions to conduct extensive underwater surveys of the seabed in both Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal. The results of these surveys showed that the marine ecosystem … appeared lifeless, with minimal to no signs of life,” he said.

The surveys also revealed visible discoloration in the seabed of Escoda Shoal, which Tarriela said “strongly indicating that deliberate activities may have been undertaken to modify the natural topography of its underwater terrain.

“The PCG emphasizes the importance of protecting and preserving our marine environment, which plays a crucial role in sustaining marine life and supporting local communities,” he said.

The Philippine military said over the weekend that it was doubling efforts on maritime surveillance after detecting a “resurgence” of Chinese vessels around the West Philippine Sea.

Chinese militia vessels returned in late August, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said in a statement, after the military drove away 50 of those vessels in July. There was also “massive harvesting” of corals in the disputed waters, it said.

The Philippines and China are locked in an ongoing territorial dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, where other nations also have claims. Manila has filed over 400 diplomatic protests against Beijing since 2020, with nearly three dozen filed so far this year.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entirety of the South China Sea based on its so-called “nine-dash line” stretching over 1,500 km off its mainland and cutting into the exclusive economic zones of several countries, including the Philippines.

In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague dismissed the expansive Chinese claim of the waters, but Beijing did not recognize the ruling and has in recent years rapidly developed its military presence, including by building artificial island bases in the contested waters.