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MANILA, Philippines – China on Thursday, September 21, criticized the Philippines for considering taking Beijing court over damage to the marine ecosystem in areas within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“The Philippines’ accusations have no factual basis. We urge relevant party of the Philippines to stop creating a political drama from fiction,” said China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning in a briefing.
Mao was asked for a comment after the Philippine primary counsel said on Thursday that he was studying the option of filing another complaint against Beijing, this time specifically over the destruction of coral reef in the West Philippine Sea, or parts of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ EEZ.
No final plans have been made in Manila. Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said the Philippine government is still at the fact-finding and data-gathering stage, and that his office has not made a “definitive recommendation” just yet. The option to bring yet another case before the permanent court of arbitration is only one of many options, said Guevarra.
In a statement late Thursday evening, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said that even as it was “awaiting our relevant agencies’ assessment of the environmental damage in Rozul Reef,” it is “ready to contribute to this effort and will be guided by the [Office of the Solicitor General] on these matters.”
“The DFA also understands that the Office of the Solicitor General is exploring legal options that the country may pursue,” said DFA spokesperson Ma. Teresita C. Daza in a message to media.
“Article 192 of UNCLOS obliges States to protect and preserve the marine environment. As clarified by the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea, this obligation applies in all maritime areas, both inside the national jurisdiction of States and beyond it. States entering the Philippines’ EEZ and maritime zones therefore are likewise obliged to protect and preserve our marine environment,” Daza added.
On September 16, the Armed Forces of the Philippines raised alarm over what it suspected to be massive coral harvesting in Rozul Reef, located in the West Philippine Sea. Two days later, the Philippine Coast Guard backed that claim and released video from underwater surveys of the area.
“The continued swarming for an 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,” said the Philippine Coast Guard’s spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, Commodore Jay Tarriela in a September 18 statement.
Beijing’s maritime militia is a fleet that’s concerned primarily with fishing but is used by law enforcement and military forces as their force multiplier. The Philippine Coast Guard has noted that during its resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal, it’s become more apparent that the maritime militia works alongside the Chinese Coast Guard in blocking and harassing Philippine ships.
Mao also brought up the BRP Sierra Madre, in her criticism of Manila. “If the Philippines truly cares about the ecological environment of the South China Sea, it should tow away the illegally ‘grounded’ warship at Ren’ai Jiao as soon as possible, stop it from discharging polluted water into the ocean and not let the rusting warship bring irrevocable harm to the ocean,” she said. Ren’ai Jiao is China’s term for Ayungin Shoal.
China has insisted on its sweeping claim over the South China Sea, despite a 2016 arbitral award that deemed it invalid. Ayungin Shoal is well within the Philippines’ EEZ.
The Philippines’ National Security Council is still planning to send a research expedition of Filipino scientists to survey the area.
Philippine scientists who went on a research expedition to parts of Rozul Reef in 2021 said they saw a marine ecosystem teeming with life. Two years later, according to an underwater survey by the Philippine Coast Guard, Rozul Reef showed “minimal to no signs” of marine life.