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Philippines, US boost space tech cooperation for maritime awareness, security

The Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau and China coast guard vessel 2102 steam alongside each other during the transfer of the fishing vessel Yin Yuan in the North Pacific Ocean June 3, 2014. . (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau)
May 18, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The United States and the Philippines agreed to boost cooperation on space technology to track ships within Manila’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, officials from both nations said in a statement released Tuesday.

The announcement came amid heightened tensions over the South China Sea.

“The U.S.-Philippines Space Dialogue is a platform designed to strengthen cooperation and advance bilateral exchanges in civil space matters including the use of space for maritime domain awareness and space situational awareness,” the two countries said in the statement released two weeks after their meeting in Washington.

Officials discussed a range of programs that use satellites to “better forecast weather patterns; support agricultural and infrastructure planning; help monitor and combat climate change and pollution; prepare for and respond to disasters; improve natural resource use; and provide vital telecommunications services,” it said. 

The Bilateral Space Dialogue program will be useful “in monitoring and documenting vessels in the Philippines’ territorial waters and [EEZ], ensure the safety of mariners at sea, monitor and help protect the environment, [as well] help combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” the statement said.

Officials did not explain why the announcement came weeks after what has been called the first bilateral Space Dialogue on May 2. Rahima Kandahari, deputy assistant secretary, State Department Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, led the U.S. delegation while Gay Jane Perez, deputy director general for space science and technology of PhilSA, led the Philippine team.

The new agreement came out just after Manila accused Beijing of building an artificial island in the disputed Sabina Shoal, known as Escoda Shoal in the Philippines. China denied the allegation, calling it “irresponsible” and an attempt to “mislead the international community.” 

Sabina Shoal, a low-tide elevation in the Spratly islands, is within the Philippines’ EEZ but is also claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. 

‘This is Ours!’

The announcement came on the eve of a Wednesday voyage by a civilian coalition, Atin Ito! (This Is Ours!), to Scarborough Shoal, known as Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines.

Atin Ito! is leading a convoy of boats to deliver supplies to Filipino fishermen at the shoal, located 125 nautical miles (232 km) from the west coast of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island.

Scarborough Shoal has effectively been under China’s control since 2012, despite a 2016 international arbitration ruling dismissing Beijing’s sweeping claims to most of the South China Sea.

Amid fears that a large Chinese flotilla could block or harass the convoy, Philippine security officials on Tuesday said they would closely monitor the trip.

The Philippine Coast Guard was in “close contact” with organizers to ensure their safety, said Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, Navy spokesman for the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for South China Sea waters within its EEZ.

Trinidad said the Philippine Navy would also be following the convoy, but he did not provide details.

He commended Atin Ito! for organizing such a mission, which is expected to include up to  five large fishing boats and 100 smaller boats.

“This is civil society showing that they understand the issue. It is not only a government approach but a whole-of-nation approach. China should respect civil society in exercising Philippine rights,” Trinidad said.

Earlier, maritime analyst and retired U.S. Col. Ray Powell said China was sending a “huge force” to block the sea convoy. 

At least four China Coast Guard ships and 26 large Chinese maritime militia vessels have been tapped for the blockade, said Powell, founder and director of SeaLight, a maritime transparency project of the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University.

That number, Powell said, did not include “dark” vessels – ships that have turned off their tracking systems.