The leadership of the House of Representatives was urged Wednesday to pass a bill defining the country’s maritime areas and territory for China to take notice of such delineation.
This coincided with a report that a firm based in Florida, USA, conducting satellite imagery analysis had published a report this February showing what appeared to be movement and structural changes on Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef in the disputed West Philippine Sea.
The development, the report quoting an expert, said, could indicate further construction operations on the artificial island, known in the Philippines as Panganiban Reef, in the days to come.
The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety.
Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez said the bill's enactment would strengthen the country's position on the West Philippine Sea.
“I am urging the House leadership to take up and approve the bill which will strengthen our position on the West Philippine Sea. This will counter the Chinese law allowing its coast guard to fire at perceived intruders in the entire South China Sea, which illegally includes our West Philippine Sea,” he said.
The representative of Cagayan de Oro’s second district filed House Bill 6156 or an “An Act declaring and defining the maritime zones under the jurisdiction of the Republic of the Philippines.”
Rodriguez’s proposed definition of the country’s maritime territory includes the Chinese-occupied Scarborough or Panatag Shoal off Zambales and Pangasinan, locally known as Bajo de Masinloc, a traditional fishing ground of Filipinos.
The Chinese Coast Guard routinely patrols this area, which Beijing seized in 2012 after a standoff between Chinese and Philippine Coast Guard vessels.
Filipino fishermen have expressed fears they might be fired upon by Chinese patrols.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has protested the enactment of the Chinese law allowing its Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels in the South China Sea, which it claims as part of its territory.
In House Bill 6156, Rodriguez said the Philippines, as a signatory and party to the 1983 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “recognizes the establishment of various maritime zones and jurisdiction of coastal states, including its own, over which sovereignty and appurtenant sovereign rights can be exercised.”
“Thus, the country exercises sovereignty over its internal waters, archipelagic waters, territorial sea and airspace over it, as well as its seabed and subsoil in accordance with UNCLOS and other existing laws and treaties,” he said.
He added that the Philippines also exercises sovereign rights over its “contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, including the right to explore and exploit living and nonliving, organic or non-organic resources.”
The House leader pointed out that UNCLOS allowed party-states to define their maritime territory.
Under the Rodriguez bill, aside from its internal and archipelagic waters and territorial sea, the country’s maritime territory includes its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that is measured from its shoreline and its continental shelf.
A large part of the Philippine EEZ is claimed by China, which has transformed some disputed islets in that area into military installations.
In their February 2021 report titled “New Construction on Mischief Reef,” the firm Simularity pointed to significant changes in seven areas of Mischief Reef, with the movement apparently occurring in late 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
An area that the company labelled Site Number 1 appeared bare and vacant on May 7, 2020. But another photo of the same area on Feb. 4, 2021 showed the area with standing roofed structures, and the “construction of a permanent cylindrical structure 16 meters in diameter that started in early December 2020.”
The company said that this was “a possible antennae mount structure.”
There was no immediately available comment from the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of National Defense nor Malacanang.
Meanwhile, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a Washington-based think tank that has been releasing satellite images of the South China Sea since 2013, also has a 2020 photograph of Mischief Reef that showed changes and additions in the structures from 2017 to 2020.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2016 that Mischief Reef is part of the Philippine continental shelf.
It was first occupied by China in 1995 through the construction of wooden barracks that they claimed were shelters for fishermen.
It is now a 550-hectare air and naval outpost, capable of housing and deploying military assets and conducting surveillance over the West Philippine Sea.
Six other large artificial islands have been built by China in the South China Sea in the last 10 years, with construction accelerated during the height of the Philippines’ filing of a case against China’s maritime incursions before the arbitral tribunal in The Hague.
Dr. Jay Batongbacal, Director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs Law of the Sea in the University of the Philippines, believes that the newly cleared areas are either “being prepared for more buildings later this year, or those areas are simply holding [or] storage areas awaiting the next batch of supplies.”
Mischief Reef, now with its own airstrip, deep anchorage ports, and radars, is less than 26 nautical miles from Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), where the Philippine government ran the old ship BRP Sierra Madre aground to serve as its military outpost in that section of the West Philippine Sea.
The decrepit, rust-eaten vessel is now where Philippine troops are positioned, between mainland Palawan and the fleet and islands of China out at sea.
While the two countries’ military outposts are geographically fronting the other, Batongbacal said the comparison ends there.