The Philippine government officially allowed Chinese scientists to survey ocean currents in the country’s northeastern seaboard—but it is also possible for data gathered from a scientific expedition to be used for military purposes, a maritime law expert said on Wednesday.
This raises the need for an awareness and management of the risks involved in such an endeavor, said lawyer Jay Batongbacal, the director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a news forum, Batongbacal said
the purpose of scientific data is “not inherent,” meaning, for example, that climate-focused research findings can be used for “some kind of military or strategic advantage.”
“‘Yung pag-aalam sa data na ‘to n’ung currents, it really can serve a benefit kasi nga pwede mong malaman ‘yung weather, you can better predict La Niña and El Niño, you can better predict these events para makapag-prepare ka for disaster,” he said.
“On the other hand, it’s true also that you can use the same data, use other methodologies and gain some kind of military or strategic advantage,” he added.
He likened the possibility to a person, for some reason, memorizing tree locations in an area—one could use that information for “recreation,” but for a soldier, this knowledge could be handy for “attack and defense,” he said.
The research vessel Ke Xua Hao, which carries Chinese scientists and supposedly four Filipinos, arrived northeast of Palanan, Isabela on January 23, one day before schedule, to carry out a survey of ocean currents that scientists believe drive climate phenomena.
The Institute of Oceanology Chinese Academy of Sciences (IOCAS) was granted permission by the Department of Foreign Affairs to conduct the said study, provided that its scientists are joined by Filipinos, among other requirements.
This move raised eyebrows given China’s history of reclaiming disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea, in disregard of an international tribunal’s decision favoring the Philippines’ case.
Moreover, Batongbacal clarified that while the Chinese-led research cruise will pass through the area where Benham Rise (renamed Philippine Rise) is located, it is not an exploration of the resource-rich region itself.
It will also not be right to “lump together” Benham Rise with the Luzon Strait in terms of research coverage—as has been seemingly done by the government in “justifying” granting permission to China—because these areas represent different “interests,” said the maritime law expert.
“It can be misleading, because it gives you the wrong impression that there are so many researches going on in Benham Rise when actually it’s in a totally different area,” he said.
Batongbacal said the government could not be expected to protect Philippine national interests "if the leadership itself is not fully aware... does not pay attention... [and] does not understand these details."
The details of the IOCAS-Philippine government agreement have yet to be fully, publicly disclosed, prompting demands for transparency from lawmakers and experts, including Batongbacal.
The maritime law expert was part of the team that defended the Philippines' later-granted claim of a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise Region before a United Nations commission, according to his profile on the UP law website.
“It’s a matter or risks and risk management, dapat alam natin kung ano yung ginagawa do’n, ano yung nangyayari, dapat aware ‘yung mga tao, aware yung mga stakeholders natin, particularly yung mga...expert natin, so they can then contribute to this assessment and then the government can then address the people’s concerns,” he said. — MDM, GMA News