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PCG: Dumping of crushed corals in Escoda Shoal may be preps for China island-building

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said Saturday that the dumping of crushed corals near Escoda (Sabina) Shoal may be in preparation for China's reclamation activities to build structures on top of the maritime feature, which is much closer to Palawan than the contested Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, issued the statement even as he reported that a "swarm" of over 30 Chinese militia vessels, aside from China's research ships, Navy vessels and a helicopter, were monitored during the prolonged deployment of BRP Teresa Magbanua at the Escoda Shoal.

Tarriela said that based on the research findings of University of the Philippines (UP) marine biologists led by Dr. Jonathan Anticamara, the growth of sandbars at Sandy Cay were "more prominent."

However in Escoda Shoal, Tarriela said, "Dito kumbaga nagsisimula pa lang. So kung sasabihin natin na itong pagdu-dump ng coral na ginawa nila sa Sandy Cay has allowed them (China) to expand itong land area, surface area na ito as artificial island, then most likely kung hindi natin imo-monitor ito, at hindi natin babantayan ito, baka sa mga susunod na buwan, magulat na lang din na sa Sabina Shoal, ay malalaki na rin ang mga isla na ginawa nila."

(Here they are just getting started. So if we say that the dumping of corals in Sandy Cay has allowed (China) to expand the land area, surface area as an artificial island, then most likely, if we don't monitor and guard against this, perhaps in the coming months, we could be surprised that there would be large man-made islands in Sabina Shoal.)

For its island-building activities, Tarriela said, China uses corals as "pantambak (landfill)."

"That means they have to kill all the corals, as many corals as possible, for them to use that as a foundation for their island-reclamation," the PCG spokesman said.

The BRP Teresa Magbanua, the largest vessel in the PCG fleet, is now on the 26th day of deployment to Escoda Shoal, just 75 nautical miles or about 139 kms. from the main Palawan island.

In comparison, Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) is 106.3 nautical miles or 197 kms. from Palawan. China has repeatedly impeded Philippine resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal, using aggressive maneuvers, military-grade lasers, and water cannons during past incidents.

Both Escoda Shoal and Ayungin Shoal are well within the 200-nautical mile (370.4 kms.) Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), parts of which overlap with Beijing's expansive claims over the South China Sea.

China's research

During the PCG's stay at Escoda Shoal, Tarriela said 34 Chinese maritime militia vessels have been monitored "until now" at the shoal with three People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships, a PLA Navy helicopter, and four China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels.

Two of the CCG vessels 4402 and VP03, Tarriela said, were the same vessels that China has been deploying in Ayungin Shoal.

"The mere fact that the Chinese Coast Guard, the PLA Navy vessels, the PLA Navy helicopter is also restricting the Philippine Coast Guard in monitoring itong activities nila dito, (that means) they must be hiding something," Tarriela said.

In one instance, Tarriela said, Philippine Coast Guard service boats were intercepted by the CCG upon noticing that the former were monitoring the Chinese research vessels.

The research ships have been seen deploying divers to the seabed, Tarriela said, bringing with them different types of measuring instruments and documentation equipment.

The PCG official said the research activity was "unilaterally decided" by the Chinese government without prior clearance from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

"Kung marine scientific research ang ico-conduct nila, dapat it has to be conducted through the Department of Foreign Affairs. It's the DFA that will give them clearance if they intend to have a marine scientific research," Tarriela said.

(If they are conducting marine scientific research, it should be conducted through the Department of Foreign Affairs. It's the DFA that will give them clearance if they intend to have a marine scientific research.)

"Obviously this is an activity na talagang unilaterally decided by the People's Republic of China. Considering na andun na nga ang Philippine Coast Guard, at sila pa rin ay tahasang nagde-deploy ng kanilang mga service boats, to the point na hinaharang pa nila ang Philippine Coast Guard inflatable boats," he added.

(Obviously, this activity was unilaterally decided by the People's Republic of China. Considering that the Philippine Coast Guard is already there, and they brazenly deploy their service boats, to the point that they block Philippine Coast Guard inflatable boats.)

The PCG said it can drive away Chinese research vessels, but Beijing would definitely take a counteraction. 

“Technically, ang Philippine Coast Guard has the mandate to do that,” said Tarriela. “Pero by the time we reached ang mga service boats ng mga marine scientists na ito, magde-deploy na rin ang China ng limang inflatable boats para harangan ang Philippine Coast Guard.” 

Tarriela maintained that the PCG would not resort to a “violent response” to drive away the Chinese researchers. 

GMA News Online has requested comment from the Chinese Embassy in Manila regarding Tarriela's statements.

Guarding Escoda

Underscoring the significance of guarding Escoda Shoal, Tarriela said current deployment at sea of the BRP Teresa Magbanua, under the instruction of PCG Commandant Admiral Ronnie Gavan, is the longest-ever on record for the PCG. It remains anchored at the shoal area.

Two other smaller PCG vessels, the BRP Cabra and the BRP Malabrigo, have also been doing rotational deployment from Escoda Shoal up to Rozul Reef, where the corals had been found to be harvested and damaged.

"The main objective of our prolonged presence in Sabina Shoal is to prevent the Chinese government in carrying out their illegal action of reclamation, possible reclamation in Sabina Shoal. And for 26 days, we have been very successful in doing that," Tarriela said.

The PCG said that their continuous monitoring of the Escoda Shoal has been effective, as they noticed that China has already stopped dumping crushed corals along the sandbar. 

Tarriela added that the PCG has been doing its own research, using methods learned from Dr. Anticamara's team, to study the changes in the low tide elevation (LTE) and other characteristics in Escoda Shoal.

He added that the PCG plans to bring marine scientists from the University of the Philippines and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to Escoda Shoal to study the sandbars. 

Asked if the PCG would be able to sustain a prolonged deployment to ensure the security of Escoda Shoal, Tarriela replied: "Kakayanin natin (Whatever it takes)." — with reports from Jamil Santos and Vince Angelo Ferreras/ VDV/VBL, GMA Integrated News