Commodore Jay Tarriela of the Philippine Coast Guard. (PNA photo)

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said Saturday it would maintain a “prolonged presence” in Escoda Shoal, commonly known as Sabina Shoal, following the sightings of Chinese vessels and the discovery of dumped crushed corals in the feature.

The PCG, under the instruction of PCG Commandant Admiral Ronnie Gavan, deployed BRP Teresa Magbanua on April 15 after receiving an intelligence report that the Chinese were conducting unauthorized marine research in the feature.

In the Saturday News Forum in Quezon City, PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, Commodore Jay Tarriela, said this is the PCG’s “longest” deployment on record in the West Philippine Sea, with BRP Cabra and BRP Malabrigo also conducting rotational deployment from the shoal to Rozul Reef.

In its initial dives to assess the shoal, Tarriela said, the PCG found that some of its sand bars have expanded in size due to the dumped corals.

“Ngayon, mino-monitor natin extensively ang movement ng Chinese research vessels. Itong tatlong Chinese research vessels na ito, mayroon silang parang mother boat na pinakamalaking research vessel na nandito sa Sabina Shoal at mayroong dalawang maliit pa (At present, we are extensively monitoring the movement of the Chinese research vessels. They have three – the mother boat, which is the biggest and stationed in Sabina Shoal, and two smaller ones),” he said.

The two research vessels, he said, circle the entire feature and deploy the service boats that ferry different types of instruments and divers to the seabed.

“We are thinking that they are actually measuring something here in Escoda Shoal, and they have been providing the data to the mother boats,” Tarriela said.

Throughout BRP Teresa Magbanua’s stay, the PCG also spotted People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels with bow numbers 622, 537, and 570, as well as a PLA Navy helicopter loitering in the area.

Also sighted were Chinese Coast Guard vessels 4402, 21555, 21556, and 3303, alongside more than 30 other Chinese maritime militia vessels monitoring the PCG’s movement.

“These are the same vessels that they are deploying in Ayungin Shoal, but again, let me stress the fact that Ayungin Shoal ay mas malayo pa sa Sabina Shoal, yet these vessels are getting nearer sa atin at nagpapalagi na sila ngayon sa Sabina Shoal (Ayungin Shoal is farther than Sabina Shoal, yet, these vessels are getting nearer to us and are actually there now in Sabina Shoal)” Tarriela said.

Sabina Shoal is about 75 nautical miles away from mainland Palawan and is situated well within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Tarriela explained that the PCG could technically take into custody these researchers for conducting unauthorized activities within the country’s waters but is unable to do so due to incessant interference from the Chinese Coast Guard.

“Every time they deploy their service boats who will bring divers to the seabed, the PCG would also bring rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB),” he shared.

“By the time we reach the service boats of these marine scientists, nagde-deploy na rin ang China ng limang RHIB para harangan ang PCG (China would also deploy five RHIB to block the PCG). In terms of the resources and the forces that they can deploy, obviously, that answers your question.”

Tarriela, however, said the current deployment of BRP Teresa Magbanua is proving to be effective in deterring what he believes is China’s attempt at “small-scale reclamation.”

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

“The mere fact na wala tayong namamataan na pagtatambak dito at ang mga areas na minonitor natin since day one hasn’t really expanded, ito ang objective dito (that we did not see any dumping and the areas we have monitored since day one no longer expanded, these are our objective).”

Within Philippine EEZ
In an ABS-CBN interview, former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said China has no business lingering in Sabina Shoal as this feature is submerged and clearly under the country’s EEZ.

Carpio said that if found that China’s activity is meant to develop the feature, it is highly likely that China’s plan could be to build an outpost given Sabina Shoal’s strategic location from the resource-rich Reed Bank.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea under its so-called nine-dash line that covers several features within the Philippine EEZ, including Sabina and Ayungin Shoals, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, where Chinese harassment against Filipino civilian vessels has recently intensified.

In a separate briefing with visiting Filipino journalists in Hawaii on May 6, a senior US Defense official warned of “more tension” in the area amid China’s coercive behavior.

“In the South China Sea, East China Sea, again, coercive behavior, you see that in the attempts to resupply Second Thomas Shoal, in an attempt to expand their excessive territorial playing (sic) territorial claims,” the American official said.

“And you can only expect more tension, especially as hard hydrocarbon exploitation becomes more and more prevalent in the region.” (PNA)