By: Dr. Jay L. Batongbacal
China has openly identified marine science and technology through the conduct of marine scientific research (MSR) as vital for the development of maritime power, and has laid out a roadmap to 2050 outlining the means and methods for doing so. To this end, it has invested heavily in its academic and research institutions, fully modernized and upgraded its MSR vessels into the largest and best in the world, and embarked on national and international ocean research programs. It has 46 vessels already in operation, with more being built and pressed into service. The most modern ship, the Xiang Yang Hong 01, is a globally-mobile ocean laboratory capable of long-range voyages and deep-sea research, and if necessary can be operated by one person on the bridge.
Alarm over the grant of consent for conduct of MSR by the Institute of Oceanology of the China Academy of Science, subject to the condition that it partner with the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute, is perfectly understandable given China’s spotty record in demonstrating respect for Philippine jurisdictions and its expansive maritime claims in the West Philippine Sea. Since 2016, a marked increase in MSR activities in the WPS have raised suspicions that China is deploying these vessels as a “grey zone tactic” to assert and demonstrate jurisdiction and administration of its claimed waters.
The PRRD Administration’s quiescence in the face of this increased activity, which included surveys and use of submersibles in areas around the Kalayaan Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and Reed Bank has done nothing to assure Filipinos of the government’s insistence that it continues to protect its maritime interests. International law does not sanction (and even expressly proscribes) the use of MSR activities as a means of asserting and proving sovereignty and jurisdiction over maritime space. But this has not prevented suspicion over China’s objectives, hence, even more intense suspicions were raised once Chinese MSR activities began intensifying on the Pacific seaboard as well.