CORALS that grow in abundance in the shallow waters close to Rozul (Iroquios) Reef in the West Philippine Sea have disappeared, apparently due to massive harvesting, a military official said on Saturday.Vice Admiral Albert Carlos, who heads the Western Command (WesCom) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said in a news forum on Saturday that this was what their divers discovered after surveying the Rozul Reef, where Chinese maritime militia vessels had been monitored by Philippine military air assets to be 'swarming' on September 6 and 7.The Rozul Reef is within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).The Wescom chief said that while he did not want to draw any conclusions, he expressed suspicion that the Chinese ships have been harvesting the corals.'We noticed coral harvesting in their swarming areas. When they left, we pinpointed it and sent divers to do an underwater survey. They saw that no corals were left — it was damaged, and there was debris,' said Carlos.He also expressed belief that the harvesting of corals in that particular area of the West Philippine Sea was carried out just recently.'[Whether] the damage is old or new, but from the eyes of the Navy divers, it looks recent,' Carlos said.He said they were coordinating with scientists and maritime experts to conduct additional assessments.Aerial patrols conducted earlier this month by Wescom air assets showed that three areas in the WPS, including Rozul Reef, were experiencing heightened swarming activities by Chinese maritime militia vessels.At least 23 ships were observed off Rozul Reef, five off Escoda (Sabina) Shoal and two off Baragatan (Nares) Bank.Carlos said the increased presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels in these areas raises concerns regarding the potential implications for the Philippines' maritime security, fisheries conservation, territorial integrity, and preservation of the marine environment.He noted that these activities have been a source of tension in the WPS and have contributed to instability in the region.The presence of the Chinese vessels in the WPS is concerning, given the Philippines' rights within its EEZ, Carlos added.'We are the only ones who have the right to the West Philippine Sea, and it looks like someone is exercising that right without our permission,' he said.Nevertheless, Carlos said whatever Wescom can hope to accomplish 'against China's swarming, harassment, shadowing and outright aggressive behavior in WPS is dictated by the resources made available to us.'Legal remedyFormer solicitor general Francis Jardeleza on Saturday said the Philippines could file another case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) over a resurgence of Chinese swarming activity in the WPS.In an exclusive interview with The Manila Times in Iloilo City, Jardeleza suggested that the new case against China be handled solely by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) without foreign counsels so that 'we don't pay anymore expensive American and British lawyers.''My preferred option, which I have already expressed, is to file another case before the same Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), but it will depend on the particular place where this swarming takes place. I think we can file a new case,' Jardeleza said.Unclos created the ad hoc arbitral tribunal in 2016 that affirmed the country's sovereign rights over its EEZ in the West Philippine Sea and rejected China's sweeping nine-dash line claim.Jardeleza, who was part of the team that filed the arbitration case against Beijing in 2013, said that the Philippines could seek payment for damages caused by China's aggressive acts.'Now if China again wishes not to participate, we have proven that we can hale them to the tribunal as we have done in the past,' Jardeleza said when asked if the Philippines can actually engage with China on the West Philippine Sea issue.'Now, what's the big difference now? Depending on where the incident is, I am arguing that a new case can be filed this time; unlike the previous arbitral award or arbitral case that we filed, this time we specify the amount of damages that we suffered,' he added.The former justice cited the China Coast Guard's use of a water cannon against the Philippine Coast Guard and its increased swarming activity as the main focus of the new case seeking 'exemplary damages.''For example, if there is swarming and they try to crisscross our vessels, then there must be some damage there. For example, if we spent more gasoline, if they water cannoned us, these are what the lawyers called damages,' Jardeleza said.'But the more important part is the so-called exemplary damage that this can run into. First, before we can have exemplary damages, we must prove actual damages. Now you add the exemplary damages, I think it can be done in a case,' he added.Meanwhile, Jardeleza said the Philippines conducting military exercises with its allies 'is good,' but it would not deter China from its aggression in the West Philippine Sea.'If there is a military exercise, we join in the military exercise, our troops will gain experience. So it's good. Now it's also good that they're foreign countries trying to be with us, that they are like us, like-minded citizens of the world, that they believe in our cause,' he said.'Now it will help, but I think it will not deter China. But any small matter can help us definitely,' Jardeleza added. Bilateral agreements.Meanwhile, the AFP announced that it will carry out more than 500 bilateral engagements with the United States Armed Forces under the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) in 2024.The MDB-SEB coordinates a framework for defense and security cooperation between the US and Philippine militaries.In an interview on Saturday, Lt. Col. Enrico Gil Ileto, head of the AFP public affairs office, said these engagements between the US and Philippine militaries include increased tempo in joint exercises, the inclusion of key international partners, particularly in joint patrols, and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) projects, among others.This was agreed upon by AFP chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. and Admiral John Aquilino, chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command, during the conclusion of the annual MDB-SEB meeting at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on September 14.The number of engagements between the two militaries next year was higher compared to the 496 activities set for 2023.'The meeting is the culminating activity of the PH-US planning cycle that assessed previous activities and set out over 500 bilateral engagements for 2024 to include exercises and high-level exchanges between the allied nations, matters of security cooperation activities, and the strategic vision including maritime security, information sharing, and capacity and capability development, among others,' Ileto said.During the MDB-SEB meeting, Brawner and Aquilino also agreed to expedite the completion of 63 additional EDCA projects on top of the 32 projects that were allocated.