Philippines-China relations

IN PHOTOS: Philippines says China ruined marine environment in Panatag Shoal 

Bea Cupin

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IN PHOTOS: Philippines says China ruined marine environment in Panatag Shoal 

GIANT CLAM HARVEST. The PCG says in February 2019, they documented marked giant clams in several piles at the shallow part of the shoal, along with floating markers.

Philippine Coast Guard

The Philippines dares China to open Bajo de Masinloc to international scrutiny

MANILA, Philippines – Between 2017 and 2019, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) dutifully compiled images that, according to them, prove how destructive Chinese activities have been in an already fragile marine environment.

These images were submitted to the country’s highest offices under former president Rodrigo Duterte: the Office of the President, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, and the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF WPS). 

What did they do after seeing those photos? 

“I don’t know,” said Commodore Jay Tarriela, the PCG’s spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea during a press conference on Monday, May 20.

Assistant Director-General Jonathan Malaya, spokesperson for the National Security Council (NSC), said as much. Malaya was part of the interior department under the Duterte administration. 

For the first time, the NTF-WPS, this time under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., publicized the photos – taken from 2017 through 2019 – that showed the “large-scale harvesting” of giant clams, destruction of critical marine habitats, and harm on marine life.

Tarriela said the photos and video show “the real behavior of China” even before President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office. 

Outdoors, Water, Nature
ON TOP of China’s consistent harvesting activities, underwater footages as early as 2017 confirm that their presence and ecological footprint has led to the degradation of the marine environment in Bajo de Masinloc. All photos courtesy of the PCG.
Nature, Outdoors, Water
IN JULY 2018, underwater documentation showed that empty giant clams have been gathered and piled up by Chinese entities to anchor their service boats at the shallow part of BdM, compromising both the giant clams and the shoal’s ecosystem.

The Philippines’ approach to its superpower neighbor has changed dramatically from the previous Duterte administration to the current Marcos administration. If Duterte promised a “pivot” to China and “status quo” in the West Philippine Sea, Marcos has promised to work with China on shared goals while also “pushing back…[if] jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea are questioned or ignored.” 

After seven years, Tarriela said, the Philippines is making the photos public as part of its “transparency strategy” or its policy to publicize China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea, or the part of the South China Sea that’s within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

“It’s for Filipinos to understand that it’s not true what they’re saying – that China’s aggressive actions, environmental destruction, harassment of Filipino fishermen, is only happening under this administration. The objective of this is to give the right information to the Filipino people,” Tarriela told a press conference. 

Malaya, who said he “anticipated” a blanket denial from Beijing, dared China to open up the shoal to “international scrutiny by a third party.” 

Leisure Activities, Person, Sport
ON FEBRUARY 28, 2019, two live sea turtles were sighted tied in captivity by Chinese fishermen in the northern part of BdM. One turtle survived and was freed, while the other was found dead two days later.
Outdoors, Nature, Water
CHINESE fishermen from small boats were monitored continuously harvesting topshells (Trochus niloticus), locally known as “Samong”. Approximately 50 submerged plastic containers containing collected topshells were documented.

China has maintained a constant presence in the shoal since 2012, following a standoff between Philippine and Chinese government vessels. 

According to the 2016 Arbitral Award, the shoal is the traditional fishing area for Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese fisherfolk. But Filipino fishermen have been unable to enter its lagoon or the opening to the lagoon, since a Chinese government vessel is almost always deployed there. 

The Philippines has been looking to filing another case against China, this time over the degradation of the marine environment in the West Philippine Sea, but Malaya said the government is still “collecting evidence.” 

China claims that, under the previous Duterte administration, the Philippines supposedly agreed to maintain the status quo in the West Philippine Sea. In Scarborough Shoal, this meant that Filipino fisherfolk would be allowed in the vicinity of the shoal and that China would not construct on the high-tide elevation. 

The deal – dubbed a “gentleman’s agreement” by Beijing – is the subject of a probe in the House of Representatives. – 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.