The chairman of the House Committee on Strategic Intelligence on Monday urged the government to prepare a contingency plan as there is “considerable risk” that a Chinese vessel might end up accidentally running aground in the shallow waters and submerged ridges of the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel, panel chairman, issued the statement following the reported mooring of some 220 Chinese vessels, believed to be Chinese maritime militia, in Julian Felipe Reef west of Palawan.
“We would urge the National Task Force for the WPS to seriously consider this risk, at the rate Chinese vessels are swarming around Julian Felipe Reef,” Pimentel said.
“In fact, the task force may have to prepare a contingency plan—a comprehensive course of action—in the event of such an unpleasant incident,” Pimentel added.
The lawmaker also expressed concern over the “reef degradation” caused by the horde of Chinese vessels.
“It is not really good for ships to moor there for extended periods because anchors can cause extensive damage to coral reefs and reef-associated habitat such as sea grass beds,” he said.
“In fact, the hazard of reef damage gets worse during bad weather owing to the risk of anchor dragging and grounding,” Pimentel said.
The Philippines have already filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing over the Chinese maritime militia’s swarming in Julian Felipe Reef.
“We must stress that under international law, we are duty bound to conserve and manage the natural resources within our 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, while enjoying sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting such resources,” Pimentel said.
In 2018, the Philippine Navy’s own flagship vessel, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, ran aground while on night patrol in the vicinity of Hasa Hasa Shoal at the eastern edge of the Spratly Islands.
In 2013, a US warship also accidentally ran aground at the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park some 130 kilometers southeast of Palawan.
The US had to pay a $1.7-million fine to the Philippines for the reef damage caused by the stranding of the USS Guardian, which had strayed into Tubbataha after a port call and fuel stop at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone in Zambales.
The mine countermeasures ship was eventually removed after a lengthy and costly salvage effort by US Navy contractors.
Amid China’s repeated incursions in WPS, Pimentel last week urged the Department of National Defense to advance by three years the acquisition of 16 new warships.
“The biggest threat to our sovereign rights as a nation is clearly in our strategic waters, so we have to give top priority to rebuilding our naval fleet,” Pimentel added.