LOOK: Chinese survey ship found operating in PH waters

Sofia Tomacruz

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LOOK: Chinese survey ship found operating in PH waters
Map images show Chinese oceanographic survey ship 'Zhanjian' operating 80 nautical miles off the east coast of the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines – A Chinese oceanographic survey ship was found to be operating off the east coast of the Philippines as early as Saturday, August 3, map images tracking the vessel’s movement showed. 

US Naval War College’s Ryan Martinson tweeted images of the Chinese oceanographic survey ship “Zhanjian” operating some 80 nautical miles off the east coast of the Philippines on Tuesday night, August 6. Martinson is an assistant professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College.


Martinson told Rappler images showed the the Zhanjian has been operating in the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone since Saturday, August 3. Close up images showed that it was operating some 75 nautical miles from the coast of Siargao island from Monday, August 5 to Tuesday, August 6.

It is unclear if the Chinese vessel was operating with permission from the Philippine government. Rappler has reached out to Foreign Secretary Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsin Jr but has yet to recevie a response as of posting. 


While it is not in the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese survey vessel was within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. 

According to Chinese marine research vessels, the Chinese oceanographic survey ship “Zhanjian” was completed in 2016 and is described as a “far sea survey ship” that has a fixed scientific research staff of some 40 persons. Its homeport is Shanghai, China.

What kind of survey is taking place? According to Greg Poling, one of the world’s leading experts on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), it is crucial to know what kind of survey the Chinese vessel is doing and whether or not it has the Philippine government’s permisison. 

Poling said if the vessel was undertaking a scientific survey, it must request permission from Manila following the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Specifically, Article 246 of UNCLOS states marine scientific research can be conducted in exclusive economic zones if permission is granted by the coastal state, which in this case is the Philippines. 

“Under UNCLOS, the coastal state is expected to grant permission, except for cases in which the survey might infringe on its economic rights, damage the marine environment, or a few other exceptions,” Poling told Rappler. Poling is the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Martinson said it was possible the ship was conducting scientific research as its track showed it may be placing or recovering instruments such as buoys. 


Poling, however, raised the possibility that the vessel may be doing a military survey of the seabed which was neither for commercial or scientific purposes. 

This may be likely, he said, as Chinese survey vessels have been undertaking “bathymetric surveys” throughout the western Pacific, which map seafloor and water conditions for submarine activities. This is also the same type of activity conducted by countries such as the United States, Russia, and United Kingdom, he added. 

Poling pointed out the UNCLOS is “entirely mute” on such activity, though China’s interpretation in its own waters was such surveys were not alloweed to be conducted without its permission. 

Based on its path, Poling also said the vessel does not appear to be undertaking an oil and gas survey as images show it mostly operating in a straight line. An oil and gas survey, he said, would typically follow a grid. 

Other vessels in PH waters:  The oceanograhic survey ship’s presence in Philippine waters comes after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier confirmed that several Chinese warships recently sailed through the Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi 4 times since February without informing Philippine authorities. (READ: Carpio: PH must compel foreign ships to keep trackers on when passing through)

Meanwhile, map images showed Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning passed Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi in June 2019.

On Monday, August 5 the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command also reported 4 Chinese Navy vessels passed through the waters of Balabac in Palawan in June without prior notice to the Philippine government.

In a different area, the Philippines through Locsin, filed a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of Chinese fishing vessels stationed near Pag-asa Island in February and July 2019. (READ: China deploys militia as Philippines builds on Pag-asa Island)

Philippines-China relations have seen a turnaround under the Duterte administration, which has fostered friendlier ties with China by downplaying a decades-long sea dispute in exchange for loans and grants from Beijing.

On Tuesday, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said President Rodrigo Duterte plans to finally “invoke” the historic 2016 Hague ruling against China’s claim to the West Philippine Sea during his visit to China this August. (READ: Philippines loses to China 3 years after Hague ruling) – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.