MANILA, Philippines — China may end up occupying more areas in the West Philippine Sea if it would be allowed to unilaterally rehabilitate coral reefs in the disputed region, a maritime expert warned.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said China’s announcement that it would carry out coral reef rehabilitation and restoration in the South China Sea should be taken with a grain of salt.
“Interested states should take the position that no such activities should be undertaken except under conditions of full transparency, equal participation and mutual cooperation by all,” he said.
“Despite its apparent environmental benefits, activities of this kind, if unilaterally undertaken, may be used to justify exclusive and effective control of reef areas similar to how China currently controls Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal,” he added.
Batongbacal noted China’s statement saying it will survey other areas aside from those that it currently occupies, saying it indicates carrying out such works in other reef areas outside of those that they currently occupy.
“Doing so may result in new, additional areas being placed under exclusive control and administration, tantamount to occupation but short of ‘new inhabitation’ (which the Parties said they will not do, per the 2002 Declaration of Conduct),” said the UP professor.
“Carrying out coral restoration/rehabilitation activities in the South China Sea unilaterally, and within the exclusive economic zones of the Southeast Asian littoral States, would be tantamount to an exercise of civilian administration and control and undoubtedly could be used in the future as evidence that China treats these areas no differently from their own resources in their territorial seas and internal waters,” he added.
Batongbacal said states should question the plan, saying silence would be evidence of acquiescence to China’s assertion of such administration and control.
He said China should not unilaterally undertake marine environmental conservation and protection if it is serious about its goal of rehabilitating the coral reefs.
“Any coral restoration project in the South China Sea should be transparently undertaken, with full access and participation of the other claimant states, in accordance with formal agreements that transparently lay out the intentions of the Parties and ensure no prejudice will be created in favor of/against their respective claims/positions,” he said.
“The China-ASEAN Decade of Marine Environmental Protection could be used as a platform for this kind of cooperative activity (up to now, this remains a piece of paper, another of many papers that were announced with much fanfare but have very little substance),” he added.