BEIJING has denied intruding into Philippine territory, saying Chinese survey vessels did not explore the Benham Rise region off Aurora Province last year, but cast doubt on Manila’s hold on the undersea area.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Chinese vessels merely passed through international waters.
“According to the competent authorities, Chinese vessels for marine research did sail across relevant waters to the northeast of Luzon, the Philippines last year, exercising navigation freedoms and the right to innocent passage only, without conducting any other activities or operations. The remarks by some individuals from the Philippines are not consistent with the facts,” the official was quoted as saying in an official transcript on the Chinese foreign ministry website.
Sought for comment, the Department of Foreign Affairs said it was still waiting for the formal response of the Chinese government.
“We will wait for the response of the Chinese side to our note verbale through official channels,” said Assistant Secretary Charles Jose.
Jose on Friday said the Philippines “expressed concern about the reported presence of a Chinese ship in Benham Rise, which has been recognized by the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as Philippine waters.”
The Chinese foreign ministry acknowledged that in 2012, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf “approved the submission made by the Philippines in 2009 in respect of the limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise region, enabling the Philippines to carry out exploration and development of natural resources in this region.”
“But it does not mean that the Philippines can take it as its own territory,” Geng emphasized.
Geng also said that according to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), “a coastal state’s rights over the continental shelf do not affect the legal status of the superjacent waters or of the air space above those waters, nor do they affect foreign ships’ navigation freedom in the coastal state’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and on the high seas, or their innocent passage through the coastal state’s territorial sea as supported by international law.”
Geng added that in response to Manila’s concerns over the activities of Chinese marine research vessels, “foreign ministries of the two countries have had a friendly exchange of views last January to sort out the facts and properly address the issue.”
He urged Manila to “stop playing up the false information and do more to promote mutual trust.”
“Working together, China and the Philippines have properly resolved their differences, added momentum to the development of the bilateral relationship, and driven forward practical cooperation across the board. It serves the common interests of the two countries and peoples, and meets the aspiration shared by peace-loving countries of the region and beyond.”
‘Groundless speculation’ on reclamation
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed that the government monitored in 2016 a Chinese ship surveying the 13-million hectare undersea region and biodiversity hotspot.
Lorenzana also claimed that the United States stopped Chinese reclamation in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) last year.
Asked to comment on the Philippine official’s claim, Geng said: “The Chinese side has made its position clear on many occasions…It is China’s sovereignty to decide what to do or not to do on Huangyan Dao. Without a doubt, China will properly handle the relevant issue.”
Geng was referring to Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground that a July 2016 international arbitration ruling said was part of the Philippines’ EEZ.
China blocked access to the shoal in 2012 amid tensions with the previous Aquino administration, which brought the matter to the arbitration tribunal at The Hague.
Filipino fishermen were allowed back to the resource-rich area after President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China in September.
Geng said “China-Philippines relations are developing in a sound momentum, with rapid progress in cooperation across the board.”
“Acting on the two leaders’ consensus of enhancing good-neighborliness, properly addressing differences, and pursuing common growth, the two countries are strengthening political mutual trust and deepening mutually beneficial cooperation. It is hoped that individuals in the Philippines will stop groundless speculation and make more efforts to promote mutual trust and bilateral relations,” he added.
Since assuming the presidency last year, Duterte has sought closer ties with Beijing, choosing to downplay the July 2016 international ruling favoring the Philippines in the maritime dispute in exchange for reinvigorated economic ties.