The Philippines will lift a 2018 moratorium on foreign scientific research in its exclusive economic zone so it can exploit marine resources, the national security adviser said on Friday.
President Rodrigo Duterte banned all scientific research by foreigners off the Philippines’ Pacific coast in February last year and told the navy to chase away unauthorised vessels.
National security adviser Hermogenes Esperon said that allowing foreign governments and entities to conduct maritime research again is “good for us… because we get to know more of the maritime domain”.
The Philippines is also beefing up its capabilities to enforce fisheries laws, Esperon said, with plans to acquire more coast guard assets and develop multi-purpose fishing vessels.
“Whatever we spend on defence should strengthen our position on developing our maritime domain especially the West Philippine Sea into what we call the blue economy”, Esperon said briefly.
Manila calls the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea.
Capitalizing on the so-called blue economy, such as using the oceans to generate energy, or tapping its oil and mineral resources, could help boost economic growth in the Philippines, where one-fifth of its 107 million people still live below the national poverty line.
The ban on foreign scientific research last year focussed on an area called the Benham Rise, which the United Nations in 2012 declared part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
It is believed to be rich in biodiversity and tuna, and scientists from the United States and Japan have surveyed it numerous times.
However, Chinese interest has caused concern among Philippine nationalists mistrustful of its intentions after decades of disputes and perceived encroachments by Beijing in the South China Sea.
Before the moratorium, Esperon said “some institutions and entities”, came in without permission, while others did not allow Filipino scientists to board their vessels. He did not identify them.
This year, two Chinese research vessels were spotted lingering in Philippine-controlled waters, which became the subject of a diplomatic protest in August.
The Philippines has also protested the presence of more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels off Thitu a tiny island it holds near China’s militarized artificial island at Subi Reef.
China claims it has historic right of ownership to almost the entire South China Sea, despite a 2016 international arbitration ruling that said that claim had no legal basis under international law.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims to parts of it.
Thitu island, the Philipines most strategic outpost in the South China Sea, is in the midst of major upgrades to its dilapidated facilities, Esperon said.