Chinese survey ship's brief passage 'OK' – Lorenzana

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The reentry of a Chinese survey ship into the country's eastern exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Pacific Ocean is no cause for concern even if it did not notify the government, said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, as long as it does not stay long in the area.

This, as security officials study how to enforce President Rodrigo Duterte's directive to require foreign vessels to seek the government's permission before entering Philippine territorial waters.

Lorenzana said he studied the track of the Chinese oceanographic survey ship Zhangjian, based on satellite images tweeted by Ryan Martinson of the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute.

The defense chief found no reason for alarm, he told reporters on Friday, August 23.

On Thurday, August 22, Martinson tweeted that the Zhangjian had reentered the Philippines' EEZ, after it was seen operating 80 nautical miles off the country's eastern coastline from August 3 to 6.

"Actually, nakita ko 'yung [dinaanan] nung survey ship na 'yan, karamihan naman ng area niya is outside our EEZ, doon sa Pacific Ocean. Kaya lang paminsan-minsan, dumadaan siya dito…. Hindi naman nagtatagal eh," Lorenzana said, noting the ship's grid-like, criss-crossing course that indicated it was conducting a survey.

(Actually, I saw the [track] of that survey ship, most of its area is outside our EEZ, there in the Pacific Ocean. However, every now and then, it passes here…. But it does not stay long.)

"Pero 'pag dumaan siya sa atin, siguro may iniiwasan siyang alon diyan o bad weather (But if they pass through us, maybe they were avoiding rough seas or bad weather), then I think it's okay," he added.

The Chinese oceanographic survey ship "Zhangjian" has returned to the Philippines exclusive economic zone. Heading west at 10 knots. — Ryan Martinson (@rdmartinson88) August 21, 2019


Lorenzana admitted, however, that the government does not know exactly what the Zhangjian is doing in Philippine waters because it has not communicated with any Philippine authority.

"That would be a concern but we don't know what they're doing. They might just be studying the current, or the seas, the migratory fish," Lorenzana said.

Referring to map images of Zhangjian spotted some 200 kilometers northeast of Catanduanes on August 22, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal said the vessel continued its survey into Philippine waters.

"After hanging out for days outside the PH EEZ, Chinese research vessel quietly crosses and continues its survey into it, maybe thinking no one's looking," Batongbacal tweeted on Friday.

Info from Jess of Karagatan (Sea) Patrol. After hanging out for days outside the PH EEZ, Chinese research vessel quietly crosses and continues it's survey into it, maybe thinking no one's looking. You can almost hear the captain whistling... "> — Jay L Batongbacal (@JayBatongbacal) ">August 23, 2019 " charset="utf-8">

This detection of the Zhangjian's reentry is the third instance of a Chinese survey ship foraying into the Philippines' EEZ this month. On August 7, the Dong Fang Hong 3 vessel was spotted in the waters off Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Although the two survey ships did not appear to have entered the Philippines' 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires that they request the government's permission to do marine scientific research within the country's EEZ, as Martinson pointed out.

According to Greg Poling, one of the world's leading experts on the South China Sea, the series of Chinese vessels spotted in Philippine waters with little information on their activities showed a lack of transparency on China's part.

"In all cases what we're seeing is a China that doesn't seem to be showing the kind of friendliness and sensitivity to Philippine interests that the Duterte government expected by now," Poling told Rappler.

Innocent passage

On Tuesday, August 20, Duterte ordered that all "foreign vessels" that would traverse the country's territorial waters "must notify and get clearance from the proper government authority well in advance of the actual passage," in a statement delivered by Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo.

Security forces must get compliance from foreign vessels whether by "friendly or unfriendly means," the President's statement added.

Although Lorenzana welcomed the directive for giving security forces "authority to enforce the law," he said it is unclear what "unfriendly means" could be applied to Chinese survey vessels and warships that have been coming and going through Philippine seas.

"Pinag-aaralan namin kung papaano kasi medyo hazy pa 'yung provisions ng UNCLOS eh (We are studying how because the provisions of UNCLOS are somewhat hazy)," Lorenzana said on Friday.

"Even [Foreign] Secretary [Teodoro] Locsin and [Supreme Court Senior Associate] Justice [Antonio] Carpio say na hindi nila kailangang magpaalam kung 'yung strait na 'to kasi...matagal nang dinaraanan nila 'yan (that they don't need to ask permission if it's this strait because they've long been passing through that)," Lorenzana added.

On July 19, Carpio criticized China's "double standard" in having its warships pass Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi without informing the government. Although foreign vessels are afforded the right of innocent passage in established international sea lanes like Sibutu, China itself does not allow other countries' military assets anywhere near its territorial waters, and those it claims to own, without its permission.

However, the Chinese warships did have the right to traverse the strait, Carpio said.

On Thursday, he urged Congress to pass a law determining sea lanes in Philippine waters.

Locsin, meanwhile, had ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs to file diplomatic protests over the warships' and survey vessels' unauthorized passage through Philippine waters. 

Lorenzana, who had recommended the filing of the protests, now thinks China may not necessarily be liable.

As security officials examine UNCLOS and other legalities to determine China's accountability for its vessels' incursions, Lorenzana said that at the very least, they must be transparent.

When several Chinese naval ships passed Philippine territorial waters from February to August, none of them were detected by radar. Lorenzana said their automatic identification systems (AIS) must have been turned off, which the military said was "duplicitous."

While the Philippines will respect Chinese vessels' right of innocent passage in certain straits and in the country's EEZ, Lorenzana said they must not linger, and they should keep their AIS on so that Philippine radars could detect their presence. – with reports from Sofia Tomacruz/

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.