Duterte wants ‘structures’ built on Benham Rise
President Duterte has ordered the Philippine Navy to put up “structures” to assert the country’s sovereignty over an underwater landmass 250 kilometers off the east coast of Luzon that a Chinese survey ship visited for six months last year, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
Manila has lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing after the Chinese vessel was tracked moving back and forth over Benham Rise, which the United Nations declared in 2012 part of the Philippine continental shelf.
The 13-million-hectare Benham Rise, also known as Benham Plateau, is found off Isabela and Aurora provinces. The plateau is potentially rich in mineral and natural gas deposits.
China’s foreign ministry on Friday said the Chinese ship was engaged in “normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage,” and nothing more.
Although the United Nations ruled in favor of the Philippines, this did not mean Benham Rise is part of its territory, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang.
Lorenzana said Mr. Duterte’s instruction was to increase naval patrols in that area and put up structures “that say this is ours.” He did not specify what structures would be erected. The shallowest point of Benham Rise is 35 to 50 meters.
“We are concerned, they have no business going there,” Lorenzana told reporters late on Sunday.
But presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said on Tuesday there was no directive for the country to put up a structure on Benham Rise to assert ownership of the area.
Abella said the territory belonged to the Philippines and the government would defend its rights over the area.
“First and foremost, Benham Rise belongs to the Filipino people. The Philippine government is duty-bound to defend and protect the sovereign and territorial right over this region,” he said.
He said no other country could stay and build anything on the plateau.
“Other countries can exercise innocent passage and territorial navigation, but they are disallowed to stay and establish any structure in the area,” Abella said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) also said the Philippines had sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the undersea region.
“Benham Rise is part of our [370-kilometer] exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and extended continental shelf … so our claim is indisputable,” Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, DFA spokesperson, said on Tuesday.
“The Philippines has the sole and exclusive right to explore, exploit and manage natural resources on Benham Rise so I think it is our responsibility to protect this area,” Jose said.
On Monday, Beijing reiterated that Manila could not claim Benham Rise as its own property despite being recognized by the United Nations.
Citing international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Beijing said that a coastal state’s rights over the continental shelf “do not affect the legal status of the superadjacent waters or of the air space above those waters.”
The coastal state’s rights also do not affect foreign ships’ freedom of navigation in its EEZ and their innocent passage through the state’s territorial sea, it said.
Jose said the Philippines recognized the two principles. “Technically speaking, no country can claim ownership of a sea in the same manner that China cannot claim ownership of the South China Sea,” he said.
Placed on back burner
Beijing and Manila have a separate territorial feud in the South China Sea west of the Philippines, but tensions have eased considerably since Mr. Duterte took office in June and began reaching out to China.
He has placed the dispute on the back burner while seeking Chinese trade and economic aid.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said promoting national security must come first before enhancing economic diplomacy.
“The DFA will know how to work closely with our defense department, our treaty ally and partners to outline our options for consideration of our President. Under no circumstances would it be wise for us to trade away our national security,” said Del Rosario in a statement.
In a press conference on Monday, Mr. Duterte said he could understand that China was claiming Benham Rise and added that he did not want to “fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time because things are going great for my country.”
The President also said there had been no Chinese incursion into Philippine territory because the two countries had a previous agreement.
“We were advised of it way ahead. But maybe we have every right also to ask, ‘What’s up? Why are you here? It’s like that. We do not want to pick a fight. Things are getting great our way, so why spoil it?” he said.
As for the military, Mr. Duterte said it should assert Philippine ownership in a friendly way.
“My orders to my military? You go there and tell them straight that, this is ours but I say it in friendship,” he said.
Lorenzana protested the presence of a Chinese survey ship on Benham Rise from June to December last year.
Though he accepted China’s explanation, Lorenzana said it was clear that the vessel was not passing through the area because it stopped multiple times, for sustained periods.
He said on Sunday that he was suspicious of China’s activities near Benham Rise and suggested they might be part of surveys to test water depths for submarine routes to the Pacific.
On Tuesday, he said the Philippine Navy would send a patrol ship to Benham Rise to survey its extent and study how to make full use of its vast resources, including yellow fin tuna.
“We will continue to study what will be the best way to develop that area for our needs,” said Lorenzana, who noted that Benham Rise was almost as big as northern and central Luzon. —WITH REPORTS THE WIRES