China's 33-day permit to survey PH's eastern seaboard begins

MANILA, Philippines – China's permit to conduct maritime research in the eastern seaboard of the Philippines began on Thursday, January 24, based on a document shown to Rappler.

The permit allows China to gather data on the ocean circulation in the Western Pacific Ocean. It expressly bans hydrographic survey or mapping activities within Philippine maritime jurisdictions, drilling in the Philippine continental shelf, and fishing. 

The permit is good for a total of 33 days or until February 25. It covers the "eastern side of Luzon and Mindanao." Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said it includes Benham Rise. 

The 4-page document was titled "Consent to Conduct Marine Scientific Research (MSR) in Areas Under the National Jurisdiction of the Republic of the Philippines." 

DFA granted the permit to the Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences (IO-CAS), which will conduct the study in tandem with Filipino scientists from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI).

The Filipino scientists should be given "unrestricted access" to all areas in the vessel and to equipment. 

The Philippines also reserves the right to suspend the research project.

Chinese ship arrives in PH

China will use the survey vessel Ke Xue Hao. The ship – along with the vehicles, platforms, and installations they will use in the study – are suposed to be under the close monitoring and security supervision of the Philippine Navy or the Philippine Coast Guard. 

The ship must also provide the Philippines regular updates on its position and situation.

Ke Xue Hao is already in Philippine waters, according to Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano in a statement Tuesday night, January 23.

Government critics slammed the approval of the permit. Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who led the country's international case against China's "squatting" in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), called it "dumb" to allow China to explore the waters on the other side of the country.

China reclaimed at least 7 maritime features in the South China Sea, including Mischief Reef inside the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.

A test of China's commitment

Filipino maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal initially welcomed China acquiescing to partner with Filipino scientists to join its survey. Batongbacal noted that China proceeded to conduct surveys on Benham Rise last year despite denial of its requests. 

The permit puts China under obligation to follow Philippine laws. Batongbacal said he hopes China will abide by the rules set by the Philippines in the permit and that it will share the results of its study with the Philippines. 

"They've always been submitting these applications even before 2012. They've always been denied without Filipino partners. We have yet to see if they're going to comply [with the terms of the agreement]," Batongbacal told Rappler.

"It's a good way to pressure them. They've been harping on maritime cooperation," he said.

China is expected to provide Philippine weather bureau PAGASA, the Philippine Navy, and the Philippine Coast Guard "real-time" and "unrestricted access to original data" on ocean circulation like sea level pressure, wind direction and speed, rainfall, and air temperature among others. 

China must also provide the Philippines its preliminary results, its cruise track, names of its crew, and all raw and processed data.

Issue of trust

But Alejano said China cannot be trusted. "China has been known for saying one thing but does another," Alejano said.

Latest pronouncements from Malacañang also made Batongbacal "feeling a little less welcoming" to China's maritime research. 

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said China was allowed to do the research because it's the only country that can do it. 

Batongbacal slammed Malacañang's ignorance of what Filipino scientists have achieved. 

"For government to say that Filipinos need China to explore Benham Rise as if there is no one else that can do it is both a brazen falsehood and a disservice to the hard work and dedication, the talents and capacities, of the Filipino scientific community," he wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday night.

Batongbacal said this is not the last time he expects China to seek permission to study the country's eastern seaboard. "It has a big project, up to 2020, to study the entire Western Pacific," he said. – Rappler.com