According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), the COVID-19 pandemic failed to dampen Chinese efforts to claim West Philippine Sea territories, including areas within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
According to JP Soriano's Saturday 24 Oras Weekend report, the AMTI found that China continued to patrol the West Philippine Sea from December 2019 to November 2020, even increasing the frequency of its patrols in the Ayungin and Scarborough Shoals.
“There was at least one [Chinese coast guard] vessel, and often two, broadcasting [an Automatic Identification Signal] from the Scarborough Shoal on 287 of the last 366 days – a substantial increase from last year's 162 days,” the AMTI reported.
Atty. Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said that this behavior spoke volumes on China's true intentions.
“Kahit na may pandemya, wala pa rin silang patawad. Patuloy pa rin ang pag-assert nila ng kanilang illegitimate claims nila sa atin,” said Batongbacal.
He added that China was making it clear to everyone that they had full control of the disputed territories.
While it was not illegal for foreign vessels to sail across the West Philippine Sea, harassing or accosting Filipino fishermen in the Philippines' EEZ would be a violation of the country's exclusive sovereign rights and a diplomatic protest by the Philippine government would not be out of place.
“Dapat we should still have regular patrols to the area to show na talagang itong ginagawa ng China ay illegitimate,” urged Batongbacal.
While the Foreign Affairs Department had yet to comment on the AMTI's findings, Sec. Teddy Boy Locsin had said that the Philippines had filed several diplomatic protests over Chinese violations of international law and Philippine sovereignty.
The Philippine Navy had also said that it would mount its own West Philippine Sea patrols despite its commitment to the country's COVID-19 response effort.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Manila had yet to comment on the AMTI report. — DVM, GMA News