Philippines Mulls Taking Legal Action Against China Over Coral Reef Destruction

The country is exploring legal options against China, including the possible filing of complaints before an international court.
Philippines Mulls Taking Legal Action Against China Over Coral Reef Destruction
A Philippine flag flutters from BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated Philippine Navy ship that has been aground since 1999 and became a Philippine military detachment on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea March 29, 2014. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)
Aldgra Fredly

The Philippines is considering legal actions against China for its alleged destruction of coral reefs within Manila's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

The ministry said it would be guided by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) on the matter, pending assessments from relevant government agencies of the extent of environmental damage in Iroquois Reef.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a signatory, "obliges states to protect and preserve the marine environment" in the disputed sea.

The UNCLOS designates maritime areas within 200 nautical miles of coastal nations' borders as their EEZs, and the Iroquois Reef is 128 nautical miles (237 kilometers) from the Philippines' Palawan province.

"As clarified by the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea, this obligation applies in all maritime areas, both inside the national jurisdiction of States and beyond it," Ms. Daza said, according to Philippine News Agency.

"States entering the Philippines' EEZ and maritime zones, therefore, are likewise obliged to protect and preserve our marine environment," she added.

Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said the OSG will assess various legal options, including the possible filing of complaints for damages before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague.

The Philippines filed its first legal case with the PCA in 2013 and secured a victory in 2016 when the Hague Tribunal ruled that Beijing's claims in the South China Sea lacked legal basis.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has rejected the Philippines' claims and said the country should remove its "rusting" BRP Sierra Madre vessel from the Ayungin Shoal if it truly cares about the environment.

Severe Damage to Marine Life

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said on Sept. 18 that Chinese maritime militia ships were responsible for the "severe damage" on coral reefs in Iroquois Reef and Escoda Shoal, which are within the Philippines' EEZ.
 Philippine ship BRP Sierra Madre grounded on Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea on March 9, 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)
Philippine ship BRP Sierra Madre grounded on Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea on March 9, 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)

The PCG said it observed an average presence of 33 Chinese maritime militia vessels in Iroquois Reef and 15 other vessels in Escoda Shoal between Aug. 9 and Sept. 11.

During that period, the coast guard conducted extensive underwater surveys of the seabed and found that the marine ecosystem there "appeared lifeless, with minimal to no signs of life."

The PCG said there was "visible discoloration" of the seabed in Escoda Shoal that indicated "deliberate activities may have been undertaken to modify the natural topography of its underwater terrain."

"The presence of crushed corals strongly suggests a potential act of dumping, possibly involving the same dead corals that were previously processed and cleaned before being returned to the seabed," it said.

The PCG said the continued swarming of Chinese militia ships "for an indiscriminate illegal and destructive fishing activities" may have directly caused the degradation and destruction of the marine environment in the areas.

Beijing claims much of the South China Sea as its own territory. In 2016, the Hague Tribunal sided with the Philippines in its territorial disputes over the South China Sea, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) refused to recognize the ruling.

The CCP published last month its "standard" national map showcasing its extensive claims in the South China Sea. The map now features a "10-dash line" instead of the previous nine dashes used to stake claims on the disputed waters, with an additional dash to the east of Taiwan.

The Philippines, along with five other countries, have objected and said the map overlaps with their respective territorial claims. Taiwan also rejected the map and affirmed that it isn't a part of China.