By Daniel Llanto

China launched two new research stations on the disputed West Philippine Sea, violating an agreement the Chinese president signed with other claimant-states at a recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting.

Chinese news agency Xinhua reported on March 20 that the two research stations were built on China’s large man-made islands in the West Philippine Sea — Kagitingan or Fiery Cross and Zamora or Subi Reef.

The report said the research facilities are under the Integrated Research Center for Islands and Reefs of the Chinese Academy Sciences and feature a number of labs on ecology, geology and environments.

A Chinese military official quoted in the report said the new facilities are “an integrated scientific research base on coral reef and deep-sea set up in the two research stations now in operation, plus a previously-established research center on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.

These can support scientists in field investigation, sampling and scientific research in the Spratlys, a volatile region crisscrossed by maritime territorial disputes.

“The bases are envisioned as support facilities for interdisciplinary research of oceanographers.”

They were also designed to “improve the in-situ observation and experimental capabilities on ecology, geology, environments, materials and marine energy utilization in the tropical marine environment,” reported Xinhua.

Maritime security expert Collin Koh of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore said the launching of two new research centers by China at this time is a significant development.

“Some may think that the on-going coronavirus pandemic would have distracted Beijing from these maritime flashpoints,” Koh said. “Truth is, this is far from the case. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) is touted to remain combat ready despite the coronavirus.”

“Using these supposedly ‘civilian scientific’ endeavors to assert claim is one such modus operandi and one that’s also often overlooked by all of us,” he said.

“Yet at the same time, the resulting strategic ramifications are not any less insignificant,” he said.

Koh believes China will remain consistent in its activities in the disputed waters. However, because of the pandemic that has swept across the globe, its actions might go unnoticed.

“The world is likely to overlook such developments given their priority focus on the virus. This should apply to the other South China Sea parties, too,” Koh said.

“Any PLA letup, or for that matter, let-up by Beijing in pushing its maritime sovereignty and rights in the South China Sea, amid the coronavirus would send a wrong signal to both domestic and external audiences,” he said.

The expert said China’s continued pro-activeness in the South China Sea despite grappling with the coronavirus was evident after it was the first to publicize a US freedom of navigation exercise in the Paracels on March 10. The US usually reports its own freedom of navigation operations.

China in recent years had transformed reefs and islands into outposts equipped with harbors, airstrips, missile shelters, communications facilities, expanding its ability to monitor its and rivals’ activities in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims to almost entirely own.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea, which is dotted by vital sea-lanes through which $5 trillion in global commerce passes every year and where islets, reefs, and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.

“The research conditions and facilities will be further optimized for better support,” the Xinhua reported.

The CAS planned to “promote innovation capability and the supply of public service products of marine science and technology to meet the needs of both China and other littoral countries around the South China Sea.”

CAS, which was established to solve science and technology problems in the South China Sea, believes it would be contributing to the emergence of a maritime community with supposedly shared resources.

Koh said China would use these supposedly “civilian scientific endeavors” to fortify its claim over the South China Sea.