THE United States government on Tuesday handed over a surveillance aircraft to the Philippines for monitoring increasing incursions by China in the West Philippine Sea, particularly its alleged harvesting of corals in one of the areas that lie within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The turnover of the US aircraft came days after China’s alleged large-scale destruction of corals and other marine life in the Rozul (Iroquois) Reef and Escoda Shoal in the West Philippine Sea caught the world’s attention.
It also comes as a satellite image, which was released on Tuesday, showed at least suspected Chinese ships massing once again at Rozul Reef, which is 125 nautical miles from Palawan and situated at the southwest edge of Reed (Recto) Bank.
Ray Powell, SeaLight director, said their imagery partners at Planet Labs provided “clear visual evidence” of at least 35 Chinese fishing and maritime militia vessels operating at Rozul Reef.
Powell told The Manila Times that although they cannot determine by these particular images that those ships were those of the Chinese maritime militia, “history, the size of the vessels, and their behavior tell us these are Chinese.”
Historically, he pointed out that People’s Republic of China (PRC) vessels have been monitored “consistently” in that particular area.
Likewise, Powell noted that neighboring Southeast Asian countries do not have fishing ships as large as those in the satellite image.
The “swarming/rafting” behavior of the ships in the satellite image is also noticeable, he said, which is a common tactic employed by Chinese vessels.
For all operations
The Cessna-208B (C-208B) Grand Caravan EX Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Aircraft was turned over by the US government, represented by Col. Edward Evans, USAF, chief of the Joint US Military Assistance Group (Jusmag)-Philippines to Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr., at simple rites at the Clark Air Base in Pampanga.
“It will be used for all operations, all types of operations,” Teodoro said, including in the West Philippine Sea.
The new aircraft will be an addition to the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) inventory of air assets, including US-made C-130 cargo transport planes, FA-50 jet fighters, and other mobility aircraft while the government acquires sophisticated planes.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., said the plane will surely enhance the military’s capability to increase its air maritime patrol in the WPS to closely detect real-time activities by China in so far as sovereign right is concerned.
“Yes definitely, this aircraft will boost our capability of patrolling our maritime seas and our ability to protect our sovereign rights in our exclusive economic zone,” Brawner said.
Philippine Air Force Chief, Lt.Gen. Stephen Parreño said the Cessna aircraft will be another asset in gathering information and reconnaissance missions in law enforcement in the maritime domain.
“This brand new aircraft is a very welcome addition to our intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capability, it will also boost our capability in missions of law enforcement, terrorism and maritime domain awareness,” Parreño said.
In a query as to the next government action against China’s activities vis-a-vis the coral destruction, Teodoro said he sought the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
“We have to validate it because according to the arbitral award that is a violation of an international treaty, the destruction of maritime life, particularly if the coral destruction is a cause of, or used for reclamation of artificial islands, etc. Now we have to validate it and then we’ll coordinate with the Department of Foreign Affairs so that we can file the appropriate action,” Teodoro said.
Aside from maritime issues, Teodoro said the US aircraft will also provide humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
“The aircraft will also be useful, particularly in the aftermath of disasters and Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (RDNA) so that we could assess the damage during calamities,” Teodoro said.
Known for its rugged utility and flexibility, which can operate up to 912 nautical miles and stay airborne for 5 hours and 30 minutes, the C-208B Aircraft, with an advanced ISR capability, will be operated by the 300th Air Intelligence and Security Wing (AISW) headed by BGen. Edgar C. Torres PAF.
So far, the PAF has three similar planes in its inventory, acquired as grants from the US government.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, a coastal state granted an exclusive economic zone enjoys the rights to the resources within that zone, Powell said.
“China’s exploitation of the marine resources at Iroquois Reef is therefore not only highly destructive of the marine ecosystem, but also illegal under international law,” said Powell, who is also the Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.
Over the weekend, Vice Admiral Albert Carlos, commander of the AFP Western Command (Wescom), reported that the weekend corals that grow in abundance in the shallow waters close to Rozul Reef have disappeared, apparently due to massive coral harvesting.
Carlos said this was discovered by military divers who were asked to conduct an underwater survey after Chinese maritime militia vessels left the area.
These Chinese vessels were monitored by Philippine military air assets on September 6 and 7 “swarming” off Rozul Reef and at least two other areas in the West Philippine Sea: Escoda (Sabina) Shoal and Baragatan (Nares) Bank.
“When they left, we sent out our divers to do an underwater survey, and… we saw that there were no corals left. The corals were destroyed,” Carlos said in Filipino.
He said the increased presence of Chinese militia vessels in these areas raises concerns regarding the potential implications for the Philippines’ maritime security, fisheries conservation, territorial integrity, and preservation of the marine environment, aside from being a source of tension in the WPS and instability in the region.
Powell said SeaLight has already documented the presence of Chinese militia ships at Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal of these West Philippine Sea features throughout the year via Twitter/X feeds.
SeaLight is a web portal created by a team of volunteers at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, which uses entrepreneurial methods to solve difficult defense and security challenges.
Likewise, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) documented how up to 30 Chinese vessels were spotted at Iroquois Reef throughout much of 2021.
The AMTI is an interactive, regularly updated source for information, analysis, and policy exchange on maritime security issues in Asia.
“SeaLight has posted evidence of similar numbers throughout 2023,” said Powell, a 2021 Fellow at Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute.
No clear proof
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) admitted on Tuesday, however, that it does not have clear proof to directly pinpoint Chinese maritime militia vessels as the ones responsible for the “harvesting” and destruction of the corals in Rozul Reef.
Commodore Jay Tarriela, PCG spokesman on the WPS, said the allegations are based only on circumstantial evidence since Chinese ships were monitored in the area before the disappearance of the corals was discovered.
“But what is certain is that from August 9 to September 11, we were able to monitor Chinese maritime militia vessels that were there in that particular area,” said Tarriela during a public briefing.
“Right after they (Chinese maritime militia) left, that was the time we conducted our underwater survey. So, in the past weeks they were the only ones there, and when we went there (the corals) were already destroyed. Their presence in the area may be a contributing factor,” he added.
Tarriela said they will still coordinate with marine scientists and experts to understand what happened to the corals in the area.
He said PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu has ordered the deployment of two patrol ships to return to Rozul Reef and the other areas in the WPS to conduct another underwater survey to have a clearer understanding of the extent of the damage.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Monday expressed concern about the reported destruction of corals in Rozul Reef.
“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,” the DFA said.
“We, therefore, call on everyone concerned to act responsibly and cease all activities that can damage our precious marine environment,” the Foreign Affairs department said in a statement on Monday.
The DFA added, “The well-being of millions of people who depend on the South China Sea for their livelihood is at stake.”
Senate President Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri expressed outrage over the destruction of the marine ecosystem in the WPS as the continued intrusion of Chinese vessels into the Philippines’ EEZ threatens global food security.
He said the coral reefs belong to the “whole world because the species of fish that breed there are not only being harvested by Filipino fishermen but also harvested by Malaysian fishermen, Vietnamese fishermen, even Chinese fishermen.”
“So it is for the good of the world if our coral reefs are protected. That’s why I’m really very mad,” Zubiri added.
He said the Senate is working closely with the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources in setting up marine ranger stations in key coastal areas nationwide to safeguard the country’s marine resources in the WPS.
Zubiri said he has spoken with Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, to earmark P600 million for the initiative.
He also vowed to fight for bigger allotments for the PCG and the Philippine Navy in the national budget for 2024 to help them in purchasing additional partial boats and other equipment.
Under the proposed P5.768-trillion 2024 national budget, the PCG has been allocated P24.014 billion, an increase of nearly 10 percent from its allotment of P21.92 billion this year.
On the other hand, P40.97 billion has been set aside for the Navy, up from its current budget of P34.98 billion.
WITH A REPORT FROM BERNADETTE E. TAMAYO
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Author: Francisco Tuyay,Franco Jose C. Baroña