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Philippine scientists harassed by China helicoper

MANILA, March 27 ------ Another case of harassment at sea by the Chinese has been reported – this time near Pag-Asa Island last Saturday – involving a helicopter, which hovered dangerously close to a group of Filipino scientists doing research work on a sand bar called Sandy Cay, causing minor injuries. 


A two-minute video released by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) showed a white helicopter with Chinese markings and with tail number 57 approaching the sand bar and positioning about 50 feet above the group of scientists from the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Biology and National Fisheries Research and Development Institute (UP-NFRDI). The helicopter’s movement created a whirlwind, sending sand and splashes of water around the Filipinos, who struggled to keep their boat steady. One of the Filipinos reportedly almost drowned, the BFAR said. No other details, such as their identities or the extent of their injuries, were reported.  


In the interest of safety, the group abandoned its work after the Chinese harassment, according to BFAR. The incident happened on the same day that the Chinese coast guard made another attempt to block Filipino vessels from resupplying a military outpost on the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. Sought for comment on the Sandy Cay incident, Department of Agriculture spokesman Arnel de Mesa said they are not authorized to issue statements on the West Philippine Sea issue. BFAR is an attached agency of the DA. 


Confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels, including collisions, in the strategic waterway have strained relations between Manila and Beijing, which have a long history of maritime territorial disputes. Last week, a boat belonging to the BFAR was taking marine scientists to Sandy Cay when a China coast guard vessel crossed its path, coming as close as 330 feet to the boat, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela said. Tarriela said the China coast guard vessel sounded a siren for more than 30 minutes to draw the attention of Chinese maritime militia boats in the area. 


Reporting on the incident, China coast guard said 34 Filipinos had “illegally” landed on the reef it calls Tiexian Jiao and which the Philippines calls Pagasa Cay 2. Chinese “law enforcement officers” landed there and “investigated and handled (the situation),” China coast guard spokesperson Gan Yu said in a statement. “That’s another lie coming from the Chinese coast guard,” Tarriela said. 


He said the scientific team spent four hours in the two reefs and was able to complete its mission, despite the presence of Chinese vessels and a military helicopter circling overhead. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, brushing off rival claims from countries including the Philippines and an international ruling that its assertion has no legal basis. An initial assessment of Sandy Cay and a second reef near Pag-Asa showed that the fish and corals were in a “very poor” state, according to UP marine biologist Jonathan Anticamara. Anticamara, who led the scientific mission, said his team observed “unnatural” and “wide” piles of rubble taller than a person at Sandy Cay. “We don’t know who put it there,” he said. 


Some of the countries with overlapping claims to Kalayaan Island Group, including China and Vietnam, have turned reefs into artificial islands where they have built ports, airstrips and military facilities. China’s land reclamation has outstripped that of other claimants, according to the US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI). AMTI estimates China has carried out “unprecedented dredging and artificial island-building in the Spratlys” since 2013, creating about 1,300 hectares of new land. 


Researchers from UP Los Baños (UPLB), meanwhile, are conducting a valuation of the West Philippine Sea’s natural resources in municipalities in Bataan, an undertaking intended to provide policy guides for a sustainable management of marine resources. UPLB’s Interdisciplinary Studies Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Environment Management (INREM) said it had gathered data in Bagac, Mariveles and Morong earlier this month under the project “Natural Capital Accounting of Coastal and Marine Ecosystems in the West Philippine Sea” (RE-INVEST WPS Project 2). “Coastal ecosystems including the WPS are under severe stress from the combined impacts of human overexploitation, physical disturbance, pollution, sedimentation and general neglect. A handful of valuation studies on marine and coastal resources in the WPS have been conducted but these studies failed to account for the major assets of the WPS,” a summary of the project read. “Project 2 of the RE-INVEST Program will develop a systematic and comprehensive accounting and valuation of the ecosystem assets and services of the WPS that conform to international guidelines and frameworks,” it added. 


Funded by the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development, the three-year project runs until March 2025. Meanwhile, Tarriela chided Chinese vice foreign minister Chen Xiaodong and the Chinese embassy for issuing statements claiming that the Philippines had trespassed into Chinese territory. Beijing, he said, “failed to mention the factual narrative that China Coast Guard once again illegally and recklessly harassed the Philippine Coast Guard and the AFP’s supply boat during the legitimate routine resupply operation.” “Their barbaric act of using water cannon to attack the resupply boat that endangered the lives of the Filipino troops is a clear manifestation of their blatant disregard of international law,” the PCG official added. 


Tarriela also disputed an article posted on China state-owned Global Times last March 25 titled “China again lodges solemn representations to Philippines regarding Ren’ai Jiao.” Ren’ai Jiao is how the Chinese refer to Ayungin Shoal or Second Thomas Shoal. On Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry declined to release details of the supposed Philippine government’s promise to remove the Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal. Asked about the details of the Philippines’ reported commitment, foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian only repeated Beijing’s accusation that the Philippines illegally grounded the warship, in violation of China’s territorial sovereignty. “China made stern representations at once and asked the Philippines to immediately tow away the warship. The Philippines promised several times to tow it away as soon as possible, but over 20 years have passed and the Philippines’ warship is still sitting there,” Lin said at a press conference. 


China and the Philippines, he said, had already reached an understanding on managing the situation in Ayungin Shoal but Manila “has gone back on its own words, refused to fulfill its commitment, repeatedly broken its promise made to China and severely violated Article 5 of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).” The Philippines insisted there was no such agreement with China. “If the Philippines does not change course, China will continue to take resolute steps to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” the foreign ministry spokesman said. 


China also accused the United States and “certain” countries of having “sheer gangster” logic in raising concerns regarding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. “The US and certain countries made infringements and provocations in the South China Sea in the name of freedom of navigation, undermining peace and stability in the South China Sea. This is sheer gangster logic,” Lin said. 


In Geneva, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri raised the West Philippine Sea issue with the Chinese before the 148th Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Assembly last March 24. “In the West Philippine Sea, a number of geopolitical analysts have predicted that it could be a major flashpoint in the region. Let me emphasize that the Philippines has consistently adhered to the international rules-based order, ensured freedom of navigation in the area and practiced restraint in dealing with the harassment and provocations of our neighbor in the north,” Zubiri said. “It takes a community of nations to preserve and nurture peace, thus we appeal to the international community to support and stand firm with us in promoting freedom of navigation and adherence to the international rules-based order in the West Philippine Sea, The search for peace remains an urgent task and elusive dream. The raging strifes that dot the world underscore the mission that we parliamentarians should pursue on behalf of mankind. And that is to mount the campaign to pause war, to stop the bloodshed and the suffering of innocent civilians whose lives have been disrupted,” Zubiri added. 




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