PHILIPPINE Ambassador to China Chito Santa Romana on Monday bared that a Chinese survey ship may have collected maritime samples at Benham Rise.
“We know from a publication in China…the ship from [November 26, 2016] to [January 21, 2017] conducted research in the Western Pacific, but it did not specify where [the ship]went,” the envoy told a television interview.
Santa Romana was referring to a report in China Ocean News detailing how the Chinese vessel collected water samples and seabed sediments.
The Chinese foreign ministry had denied that Chinese vessels spotted last year at Benham Rise were doing research, claiming they merely sought “innocent passage.”
The DFA then asked the Chinese Embassy in Manila to explain the presence of its ships in Benham Rise. President Rodrigo Duterte however later revealed that China had asked permission to pass Benham Rise.
Santa Romana said Xiangyanghong 03, a comprehensive scientific research ship with 60 crew members, obtained samples during a voyage on January 21. The survey ship left Xiamen on November 26, 2016.
“It only becomes relevant to us if the seabed sediments have to do with trying to find out resources or exploration of the natural resources,” said Santa Romana, formerly a Beijing-based journalist.
Santa Romana admitted he knew nothing of the conversations between Chinese officials and President Duterte regarding Benham Rise.
However, he reiterated what Duterte had said that any country has freedom of navigation in the area “as long as the Philippine Navy or the Foreign Affairs department is informed.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was the first to reveal that Chinese ships were seen surveying Benham Rise last year for a three-month period.
After Lorenzana’s exposè, China, in various announcements, clarified that it won’t claim rights over Benham Rise.
On Saturday, the Palace said Duterte was considering renaming Benham Rise to “Philippine Rise,” in a bid “to emphasize Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the area.”
In statement, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea had been tasked to look into the possibility of changing the name of Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare underwater area off the coast of northeastern Luzon.
A United Nations body ruled in 2012 that the area is part of the country’s extended continental shelf.
Within the extended continental shelf, the Philippines can invoke “sovereign rights,” rights lesser than “sovereignty” but still allows the exploration, exploitation, conservation and management of natural resources.