West Philippine Sea task force eyes environmental case vs China

Ghio Ong - The Philippine Star
West Philippine Sea task force eyes environmental case vs China
Members of the Maritime Security Law Enforcement Group gather at the national headquarters of the Philippine Coast Guard in Manila during a send-off ceremony yesterday. The group is made up of the Coast Guard’s K9 Force, Security and Border Protection Force, Surface Patrol Force, Investigation and Detection Force and Sea Marshall Force.
Edd Gumban

MANILA, Philippines — It is high time that a case is filed against China for its marine environment depredation in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, National Security Council assistant director Jonathan Malaya said yesterday.

Concerned government agencies are gathering evidence to support a possible environment case against China, according to Malaya, who is also the spokesman for the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS).

“If you were to ask us, given the evidence gathered since 2016 until now, it’s high time that we file another case,” he said at a briefing.

He also cited a “strong consensus” among different concerned agencies for the filing of a case.

It was in 2016 that the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague ruled favorably on a case filed by the Aquino administration three years earlier questioning China’s massive claim in the South China Sea.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, NTF-WPS spokesman for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), presented to the media proof of China’s “harmful fishing activities” that he emphasized should be exposed to the public.

He showed photos and videos taken by the PCG documenting Chinese fishermen or militia members harvesting giant clams, stingrays, puffer fish, local seashells called “samong” and “leswe” and turtles in the vicinity of Panatag Shoal from 2016 to 2022.

Chinese coast guard and militia vessels have long been restricting the activities of Filipino fishermen around the shoal.

The “last documented harvesting of giant clams” in Panatag Shoal was in March 2019, according to Tarriela.

He also accused China of using equipment to scrape giant clams off the seabed starting April 2019. The procedure, Tarriela maintained, destroyed coral reefs. “They were so desperate that they even scoured the seabed just to harvest giant clams.”

The Chinese fishermen would abandon the shells of harvested giant clams, or even sink their dilapidated boats, a practice that also ruined the coral reefs.

The 2016 arbitral ruling, according to Malaya, had also slammed China for its “severe harm to the coral reef environment” and for violating its “obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species.”

Asked if he had knowledge of the Chinese’s environmentally destructive activities while he was an official of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Malaya said, “I have no idea about these reports.”

Malaya had occupied several positions in the DILG since 2017, during the Duterte administration, before he was appointed to the NTF-WPS by the Marcos administration.

Malaya said any decision to file another case against China would “depend on the legal authorities,” particularly the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General.

“What I can say now is DOJ and OSG are in the process of preparing a case and where to file it. It’s a legal matter,” Malaya said, noting that the NTF-WPS is not part of the legal discussion.

As China is expected to deny the evidence gathered by the PCG, Malaya said he is challenging Chinese authorities to “open up Bajo de Masinloc to international scrutiny,” referring to the shoal by its other name.

“It has to be a third party. It can be an international observe mission, it can be under the United Nations since both the Philippines and China are members,” he said.

He stressed that the Philippines would want to “settle the matter diplomatically with China” by “requiring the cooperation of China” in his proposed challenge.

PCG ready

Meanwhile, the PCG said it is ready to follow whatever instructions are given to its leadership regarding China’s announcement of a new rule allowing its coast guard to detain for 60 days anyone found trespassing into what it considers its territory.

“The instructions of Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan, PCG commandant, is always to prepare the personnel and the vessels if there is a need or instruction from the NTF-WPS to escort,” PCG spokesman Rear Admiral Armand Balilo said.

“The Coast Guard is ready, but as to what our task will be and the plans, it is a matter of operation and only the policymakers and the people on the ground can answer that,” he said.

Balilo did not disclose the number of PCG ships currently deployed in the West Philippine Sea, but one of their biggest ships, the 97-meter multi-role response vessel (MRRV) BRP Teresa Magbanua, has been on patrol for more than 28 days.

“The BRP Teresa Magbanua has extended its presence in the area, Escoda (Sabina) Shoal. We are just bringing gas and provisions to the ship so we could maintain our presence in the area,” Balilo added.

Malaya, however, downplayed the latest Chinese government policy as another “scare tactic” fit to be ignored.

“The moment we raise this officially with the Chinese government, it is a sort of recognition or acquiescence,” he said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to lambast China for its new “maritime rule.”

Sen. Francis Tolentino said Article 73 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides that penalties any coastal state can impose for violation of fisheries laws and regulations in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ ) do not include imprisonment.

“If they dare to do that (detain foreigners), there is a provision in the UNCLOS Article 73, obviously, the coastal state can impose penalties for violation of fisheries laws and regulation in EEZ and they may not include imprisonment,” said Tolentino in an interview over dzBB.

“It is clear from UNCLOS that what they are doing is wrong, so this is another violation, we can file a new case against China at the ITLOS or International Court of Justice,” he added.

Rep. Jefferson Khonghun, for his part, said China’s new rules should apply to its citizens because they’re the ones violating laws.

He also said he finds it deplorable that while the Marcos administration is trying to lower the tension, Beijing keeps on hyping it.

Rep. Francisco Paolo Ortega V said in jest that China’s new policy seems to violate the Philippines’ Lina Law (Republic Act 7279), or the “Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992” that criminalizes squatting. “They squatted in our territory, not the other way around,” he said.

For Rep. Jonathan Keith Flores of Bukidnon’s second district, the latest China policy only shows the contrasting ways two nations handle the highly sensitive issue of the West Philippine Sea. “It shows that we go for dialogue and diplomacy while China uses threats and aggression.”

“They’re going to continuously threaten and bully us into submission, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. We will continue to exercise sovereignty over these areas and continue to exercise our rights,” he told a news briefing.

“So, we will continue to stand our ground, we will continue to exert our right and we will continue to exercise restraint in the area to defuse the tension,” Flores added.

“They (Chinese) will be violating many international laws if they do this. Our fishermen can always fish there, it is our territorial waters in the first place,” Taguig Rep. Amparo Maria Zamora said. — Evelyn Macairan, Delon Porcalla, Pia Lee-Brago, Cecille Suerte Felipe

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