Two China survey ships spotted in Philippine EEZ

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Between August 5 and 6, one of the ships came as close as 75 nautical miles from Siargao island, well within the country's 200-nautical mile EEZ.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 8) — Two Chinese survey ships have sailed within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an area where Filipinos have sovereign rights to explore and exploit natural resources, a U.S.-based academician said.

Ryan Martinson, assistant professor of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, in a series of tweets this week, posted photos of the ships and their track.

The first ship, Zhang Jian, "has been operating" east of the country since August 3, Martinson said Tuesday. Between August 5 and 6, it came as close as 75 nautical miles from Siargao island, well within the country's 200-nautical mile EEZ.

"Is it operating there with Manila's permission?" Martinson said.

Article 246 of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea states, "Marine scientific research in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf shall be conducted with the consent of the coastal State."

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. was not privy to Zhang Jian's whereabouts.

"That's not happening until I hear from the Armed Forces. Because of the prevalence and proclivity of civilians to lie about anything, Philippine foreign affairs in my watch is the fist in the iron glove of the Armed Forces and relies only on military info and recommendations," Locsin said on Twitter Wednesday. The Armed Forces has yet to release a statement on the matter.

On Wednesday night, Martinson tweeted that another oceanographic research vessel of China called Dong Fang Hong 3 has been found northwest of the Philippines. The closest it got was Ilocos Norte, according to the map that Martinson posted, which did not include the distance.

"Add the Dong Fang Hong 3 to the list of Chinese survey ships operating in the Philippines exclusive economic zone today. Would require Manila’s permission to conduct research there," Martinson said.

What were the ships doing?

The presence of Chinese ships near Philippine coasts caught the attention of Gregory Poling, director of U.S.-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. The group has been closely monitoring China's actions in the disputed South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely. This includes the West Philippine Sea, or areas the Philippines either occupies or claims as part of its EEZ.

"Seems pretty clear this isn't an oil and gas survey, so it's (Zhang Jian) either engaged in MSR (marine scientific research) or a military survey. If the latter, US & others would argue no permission needed. If the former, it'd have to request permission, which Manila would usually have to grant. Right?" Poling said.

Martinson believes Zhang Jian was doing scientific research. "Based on the track, I'd guess it is placing/recovering instruments (surface or subsurface buoys)," he said.

The two marine experts also agreed the surveys could provide "valuable information" for possible submarine operations in the future.

Martinson, however, noted this is not a unique case. "China has a voracious appetite for marine data, and its survey ships are operating everywhere," he said.

This is the latest in a string of incidents where Chinese vessels have been passing through Philippine waters, apparently without permission from local authorities. Four Chinese Navy ships transited Balabac Strait in Palawan in June, ignoring radio warnings. Early this year, a number of Chinese warships also crossed Sibutu Strait, an internationally-recognized shipping lane south of Tawi-Tawi, without informing Philippine officials. This was the subject of a diplomatic protest filed in July, along with the swarming of over a hundred Chinese vessels around Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.