MANILA - Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Thursday his department is verifying a reported sighting of a Chinese research ship near Scarborough Shoal (Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc) in the West Philippine Sea.
"Our next course of action will be based on the facts that are gathered by the maritime patrols in the area," Lorenzana said in a statement.
"Rest assured that the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines), through the Northern Luzon Command, undertakes regular domain awareness operations and provides all the necessary support to the Philippine Coast Guard and other agencies to secure and implement our laws in our territorial waters and the EEZ (exclusive economic zone)."
The Philippines considers Scarborough Shoal a part of Masinloc, Zambales. It is located 124 nautical miles west of the province and has been declared by an international arbitration court as a traditional fishing ground of different nationals.
An assistant professor at the US Naval War College had tweeted that the Chinese research vessel, named "Hai Da Hao", was spotted "operating" 65 nautical miles, or at least 120 km, east of the shoal.
According to Ryan Martinson, a core member of the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US-based college, the ship is operated by China Ocean University.
Despite the 2016 arbitral ruling that nullified China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, Beijing continues to aggressively encroach and conduct military activities there, including in the West Philippine Sea, which is the Philippines' EEZ in the disputed waters.
Manila has repeatedly raised concerns over Beijing's activities in the South China Sea, particularly its militarization efforts.
An analysis by AI-based satellite image analysis firm Simularity last July revealed Chinese ships moored at the West Philippine Sea dumping untreated human waste into the waters for some 5 years now, which experts said could damage reefs and affect the country’s fish stocks there.
A few months ago, hundreds of Chinese ships were in different parts of the West Philippine Sea.
Critics have slammed President Rodrigo Duterte for "abandoning" the Philippines' 2016 arbitral victory over China, in exchange for investments and loans. This, they said, encouraged Beijing more to conduct its illegal activities in the South China Sea.
Despite Duterte's pronouncements favoring China as a supposed ally of the Philippines, Malacañang said “no one can diminish” the country's arbitral victory against Beijing.
In May, Duterte called the arbitral ruling a mere piece of paper that belongs to the trash.