China respects the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the Benham Rise in the South China Sea off the country’s eastern Luzon, according to acting Secretary Enrique Manalo of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
In fact, Manalo said on Tuesday, Beijing will ask Manila’s permission every time it visits the multimillion-hectare area east of Aurora and Isabela provinces that is believed to be rich in minerals and natural gas.
Manalo, who was interviewed at Diamond Hotel in Manila, told reporters that China had asked permission to sail to Benham Rise several times but was denied after the Chinese did not agree to have a Filipino scientists board their ships as observer.
He said Chinese scientists may be allowed to conduct research at Benham Rise provided they comply with the requirements such as allowing Filipino scientists accompany them.
The Chinese can pass through Benham Rise but only in exercise of the right of innocent passage.
President Rodrigo Duterte, in earlier interviews, said Chinese officials asked from him permission to visit Benham Rise.
Manalo said the Philippines could demand that any country that intends to sail to Benham Rise after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) recognize the sovereignty of Manila over the area by seeking first authorization from the Philippines.
In various instances, he added, China has recognized the Philippines’ sovereignty over Benham Rise.
This gesture, Manalo said, is enough for Manila not to worry about China’s invasion of waters off eastern Luzon.
It could also be a Chinese move to explore how Manila and Beijing could help each other pursue cooperation, the acting DFA secretary surmised.
This cooperation, Manalo said, is a fruit of the visit of President Rodrigo Duterte to China last year during which he met with Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping.
He noted that the President has strict orders to the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine military to guard Benham Rise.
Meanwhile, Manalo said Manila and Beijing are exploring ways on how to resolve peacefully their conflict in the South China Sea.
“Our bilateral cooperation talks include the South China Sea. We are communicating. That’s the intention. We have several mechanisms and we are exploring all of them,” he added.
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are invited to a meeting by Chinese officials sometime in May to discuss South China Sea issues, including a Code of Conduct that is expected to finally stop Beijing’s reclamation of reefs in the disputed area.