ARE Chinese ships encroaching on Philippine territory in Benham Rise?
Expect politicians and media to shout Yes!, then whip up a supertyphoon over the reported sailing of a Chinese vessel in vast waters off the coast of Aurora and Quezon provinces for three months last year.
“Recto, Gatchalian: Stop Benham Rise falling into Chinese hands,” said one online headline. Senators Ralph Recto and Win Gatchalian have called on the government to protect the 130,000-sq-km undersea plateau said to be rich in fish and perhaps manganese and natural gas.
“No ifs or buts,” declared Recto in a statement. “The government must have a Benham Rise protection strategy. A comprehensive strategy—military, diplomatic, economic—in holding on to and developing Benham Rise. We cannot be caught unaware.”
Gatchalian added: “The government must take immediate action to defend our exclusive sovereignty over the Benham Rise to ensure that this potential will be developed and utilized to benefit the Filipino people.”
And Recto warned of hostile forces possibly surrounding the country: “We have practically lost the seas west and north of us. We cannot be encircled. The eastern side of the country should be defended as well.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was the first to express concern. He said last week that the Chinese ship stayed in the Benham Rise area for three months last year. He added that since August, the Department of Foreign Affairs had written several notes to China, citing the vessel, though the DFA has said nothing about such notes.
Some ships stayed in the relatively shallow waters of Benham Rise, said the defense chief, “as if doing nothing, but actually, they are surveying the sea floor, the sea bed.” He suspected that the Chinese were looking for a undersea site to park submarines, based on intelligence from an ally, probably the United States, which had given the Philippines reports and pictures of Chinese maritime activities in the past.
Last Friday, the Palace got into the act. Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella told Palace media: “We are concerned about the presence of a Chinese ship in Benham Rise, which has been recognized by the United Nations as part of the Philippines. The Department of National Defense has already notified the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding this matter, as we continue to assert our sovereignty over our territory.”
When fears trump facts
So, are we back to square negative-one in our dealings with China, half a year after President Rodrigo Duterte’s successful October visit, and just days following the signing of contracts for infrastructure projects worth billions of dollars, to be funded by China.
With the done deals witnessed by Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, President Duterte declared: “Let me publicly again thank President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people for loving us and giving us enough leeway to survive the rigors of economic life in this planet.”
Don’t look now, but one can see Duterte critics and anti-China quarters accusing Beijing of buttering him up with massive aid, while quietly encroaching on our maritime zones.
Such a view can very well take hold, fed by fear and distrust toward China, as seen in a Pulse Asia survey in early December. While America and Japan enjoyed high trust among over 70 percent of Filipinos, most distrusted China and Russia.
Now, Palace and Senate officials are accusing Chinese ships of intruding into “Philippine territory” in Benham Rise, and the public will believe it — even if it’s untrue.
Here are the facts: The seas beyond 12 miles from shore — the limit of territorial waters — are international waters, where foreign vessels can conduct innocent passage. So, Chinese ships in Benham Rise never intruded into Philippine territory.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, the Philippines does have the sole right to undertake economic activity in waters within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), stretching up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coast. The country enjoys similar rights over the seabed up to 320 nm (592 km) from shore in the extended continental shelf (ECS).
There are no reports that the Chinese ships were doing any fishing, undersea mining, oil exploration, or similar activities. Secretary Lorenzana said the ships were surveying the ocean floor. based on allied intelligence; China denied it. In fairness to both sides, there is need to produce and evaluate evidence before we can say who’s telling the truth.
The American connection
Notably, too, if information about the Chinese ships came from the US, then there may be conflict of interest. The Americans may have reason to incite conflict between China and the Philippines, so as to justify increased rotations of US forces in the archipelago, plus access to Philippine military bases, as stipulated in the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
Last year President Duterte threatened to abrogate the EDCA. In January, after Secretary Lorenzana announced that the US would build facilities in Philippine bases earmarked for its forces, Duterte fumed over the alleged entry of American weapons in Philippine bases. He feared that those armaments would be magnets for attack if there is war between America and China.
Now, if there is nationwide alarm again over alleged Chinese incursions, Duterte may have to implement the EDCA, and end his rapprochement with Beijing.
Ironically, US forces have actually violated Philippine territorial waters far more than China has done in Benham Rise.
As the US Navy reports to American congressmen every year, its vessels deliberately flout the maritime rights of several countries under the UNCLOS, which Washington has never ratified, though it repeatedly calls on Beijing to abide by it.
Iran is the country subjected to the most deliberate violations of its UNCLOS waters. And the second most violated by the US? The Philippines.
Washington doesn’t recognize the UNCLOS provision granting archipelagic states like ours certain sovereign rights over the territorial seas within the baselines running around our main islands. So, the US Navy deliberately violates our territorial seas to assert freedom of navigation.
Now, what do our leaders have to say about that?