China on corals: Philippines creating political drama from fiction

Michael Punongbayan - The Philippine Star
China on corals: Philippines creating political drama from fiction
Screengrab from Philippine Coast Guard shows damage to marine environment and coral reef.
Philippine Coast Guard

MANILA, Philippines — It’s the grounded BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal that is causing “irrevocable harm” to the marine environment, according to China, as it denied clearing Rozul Reef of its corals, saying the Philippines is “creating a political drama from fiction.”

“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 (Ayungin Shoal) 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,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said on Thursday, referring to Ayungin Shoal by its name assigned by Beijing.

The BRP Sierra Madre is a World War II-era transport ship deliberately beached in 1994 in Ayungin Shoal to serve as an outpost for a handful of Marines tasked to guard and protect the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) discovered the destruction of corals in Rozul Reef after the departure of more than a dozen Chinese vessels from the area, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“The Philippines’ accusations have no factual basis. We urge relevant party of the Philippines to stop creating a political drama from fiction,” Mao said.

China issued the statement after the Philippines announced plans to file complaints before an international court to hold China accountable for environmental depredation.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it is awaiting an assessment of relevant agencies on the environmental damage to Rozul Reef and is prepared to support state lawyers in filing a case against China.

“Article 192 of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) obliges States to protect and preserve the marine environment,” the DFA said in a statement also issued late Thursday.

“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,” it read.

The DFA said it also understands that the Office of the Solicitor General is exploring legal options to pursue.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said it laments the destruction of coral reefs in the West Philippine Sea, just as over 60 countries signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction or BBNJ Agreement last Sept. 20.

“Scientific studies have established that the marine ecosystem in the Kalayaan Island Group is critical for the sustainable supply of fish and coral larvae in the Philippines and the region. The rich biodiversity in the reefs, shoals and coasts is documented by the DENR, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority, the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute and other partner-organizations,” it said.

“We therefore strongly deplore any activity that leads to the damage and destruction of the coral reefs in the Kalayaan Island Group. We join the call for signatory States and their citizens to adhere to Article 192 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – to protect and preserve the marine environment,” the DENR added.

Tap international help

Sen. Francis Tolentino said the government should tap the UN, as well as private and public international groups, in collecting evidence for legal action against China.

“I think China will only pay if there is conclusive proof shown to the entire global community that would probably place them in a situation that they would behave appropriately,” Tolentino said.

“Everything has to be subject to proof. There’s no denying that they’re the only country interested because Escoda, Sabina is sort of the guard post going to Ayungin (Shoal),” Tolentino said in an interview over CNN Philippines.

He also chided the Chinese foreign ministry for blaming the Sierra Madre for the environmental destruction in the West Philippine Sea.

“The rust coming from BRP Sierra Madre is nothing compared to the destruction of the corals in Panganiban Reef, which is inside the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, which was made into an artificial island by China as a military base that has a 3,125-meter runway and continues to cause widespread pollution and destroyed the marine ecosystem of the area. This should not be forgotten,” the senator said.

“Apparently they’re trying to evade the issue and not just pictures, but the science-based proof would show that the destruction made in Iroquios (Rozul) as well as in Escoda and Sabina are not really due to natural waves or current, but it’s man-made,” said Tolentino.

“They are the only ones there because of their swarming activities, this caused the discoloration, pulverized corals, so these are man-made activities and intervention,” he added.

He said the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea might be the best venue to raise the issue as the 21 members of ITLOS have enough experience in handling similar cases.

Meanwhile, the PCG awarded on Thursday with Bronze Cross Medals its personnel stationed on Kalayaan Island.

PCG’s Palawan district commander Capt. Dennis Rem Labay said the personnel were recognized for “their sacrifices and valuable public service during their assignment.”

The PCG did not name the officers given awards or how many they were. – Bella Cariaso, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Ghio Ong

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