MANILA — Filipino scientists conducting research in the West Philippine Sea also experience intimidation from China, a maritime scientist said Sunday after a recent incident at the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) revived tensions between Manila and Beijing over their maritime disputes.
Chinese vessels have chased Filipino researchers from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) during their expeditions in the West Philippine Sea, said Deo Onda, a microbial oceanographer who is also part of the UP-MSI.
“Hindi naman kami deretsong sasagasaan o babanggain, pero alam naming sinusundan kami… Ang ginagawa lang naman namin, dumidistansiya lang kami,” he told TeleRadyo.
(They don’t run over us or hit us. But we know that they follow us… What we do is we just keep our distance from them.)
“Dahil nga ‘yong barko ng MSI, mas mababaw ‘yong kaya niyang puntahan, ang ginagawa namin, pumupunta kami doon sa reef na mababaw. Dahil malaki ‘yong barko nila, hindi sila makasunod,” Onda recounted.
(Because MSI’s ship can navigate through shallow waters, we go there which the big Chinese ships cannot reach.)
Onda said researchers have also received calls from China’s coast guard, who claim that they were entering Chinese territory.
Some expeditions, which take months to prepare for, end up getting cancelled due to “security threats” in the West Philippine Sea, Onda said.
But he clarified that the scientists are “working well with the national government” by coordinating with troops stationed in the West Philippine Sea during expeditions.
Onda said China is strengthening its claim over the West Philippine Sea by publishing research conducted in the area without acknowledging that such studies were done in Philippine waters.
“It institutionalizes their claim, it really strengthens their claim of the area.”
China has established three research stations in the West Philippine Sea and sends hundreds of research vessels, according to Onda.
The Philippines, on the other hand, has only one vessel but the government is now working to buy four more ships, he said.
Tensions over the West Philippine Sea have spiked in the past weeks after Chinese coast guard ships water-cannoned Filipino boats delivering supplies to military personnel at the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.
Last Wednesday, China reiterated its demand that the Philippines remove the BRP Sierra Madre, which has been grounded at the shoal since 1999.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Ayungin Shoal, known in China as Ren’ai Jiao, is part of China’s Nansha Qundao (the Spratly Islands), which is also being claimed in part by the Philippines.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has said the Philippines would not be stopped from exercising its sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.
Also on Sunday, Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go said it was “unacceptable” for China to demand the removal of the BR Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal.
“The Ayungin Shoal is part of the Kalayaan Group of Islands — an integral part of the Philippines. It belongs to us and it is ours to protect and use for the benefit of our people,” Go, a presidential aspirant in next year’s elections, said in a statement.
Go called on “all stakeholders to exercise restraint and avoid increasing the tension and, instead, abide by our commitments and duties under international law.”
Other 2022 presidential aspirants, including Vice President Leni Robredo, Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, and Sen. Manny Pacqiuao, have also backed the government’s position to reject China’s claim over the Ayungin Shoal.