China ‘harasses’ PHL research, exploration ships US think tank

AMTI’s infograph shows the incidents involving the Norwegian survey ship, the Geo Coral and its supply ship Mariska G, which were contracted to conduct seismic surveys by the PXP Energy Corp. near Recto (Reed) Bank, southwest of the Malampaya gas field, at SC 75.

CHINA has allegedly harassed marine research and hydrological exploration activities inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone since March, the US-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported.

“Chinese coast guard and militia dangerously harassed Philippine and Taiwanese vessels in the Philippine EEZ in three separate showdowns in March and April. Beijing giving the Marcos admin a preview of what it can expect,” Greg Poling, senior fellow and director of AMTI wrote on Twitter.

The first incident happened last March in a  “cat-and-mouse” chase involving the Taiwanese research vessel, The Legend, that started northwest of Babuyan Islands in Batanes and ended near the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in Zambales.

The Legend was conducting hydrographic surveys off Babuyan Islands when a Coast Guard vessel based in Panatag (Mischief) Reef began shadowing it dangerously close at a distance of 2-3 nautical miles on March 24.

Taipei immediately dispatched its own Coast Guard from Pratas Island and maneuvered to keep the Chinese Coast Guard away from the Legend for two days. China continued to shadow Legend when it moved closer to the Philippine coast, towards the disputed Scarborough Shoal. It was during this time that the Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel BRP Capones accompanied the Taiwanese vessel. The Chinese Coast Guard stopped  tailing the Taiwanese vessel when the latter returned to Taiwan on April 9.

The second incident happened on April 4, around 60 miles off the western coast of Palawan. A Norwegian survey ship, the Geo Coral and its supply ship Mariska G were contracted to conduct seismic surveys by the PXP Energy Corp. near Recto (Reed) Bank, southwest of the Malampaya gas field. They had just arrived at SC 75 when they picked up a tail from a Chinese Coast Guard vessel.

The Chinese Coast Guard vessel followed the two vessels until the Philippine Department of Energy ordered PXP Energy to put on hold all exploration activities for SC 75 and SC 72.

On April 21, Chinese law enforcement and militia ships again interfered with Philippine research activity. The M/V DA BFAR, a 60-meter research vessel operated by the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, was heading for Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel pursued the DA BFAR at “extremely close distances, coming as close as 100 meters in multiple instances.”

Then another Chinese Coast Guard vessel and two Hainan-based militia vessels closed in from the north. Feeling the pressure, the DA BFAR retreated toward Pag-asa Island. Then the Philippine Coast Guard’s BRP Cape Engaño later on approached the Ayungin Shoal and was again shadowed by the same Chinese Coast Guard vessel and militia vessel that harassed DA BFAR at distances of “approximately 1 nautical mile.” The three vessels were around 6 nautical miles east of the Ayungin shoal when three more Chinese militia vessels came and flanked them to the east of Cape Engaño.

A standoff ensued for several hours, and Cape Engaño later turned back eastward, before heading toward unoccupied Whitsun Reef.

“All three incidents demonstrate Beijing’s determination to control maritime activity within the nine-dash line, and to create a high risk of collisions at sea to do so. In one instance, its tactics clearly succeeded, convincing the Philippines to backpedal on an October 2020 decision to lift a nearly decade-old moratorium on oil and gas exploration in areas of its continental shelf that fall within the nine-dash line. This follows a complete lack of progress on joint exploration despite a 2018 memorandum of understanding with Beijing, making it unclear whether the Philippines will ever be able to access its hydrocarbon resources at Reed Bank,” the AMTI said.

“On other fronts, Philippine law enforcement, navy, and marine science actors have been stepping up their activities in the South China Sea despite an increasingly assertive China. But with a new administration taking power at the end of June, it remains to be seen how forcefully the Philippines will continue to assert those rights,” it added.

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