THE Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday bared it had rejected China’s request to conduct scientific research at Benham Rise twice and that the reported activity of Chinese survey ships in the area last year may not have had permission from the agency.
Maria Lourdes Montero, acting executive director of the DFA Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office, said they received requests from China in 2015 and 2016 to be allowed to conduct marine research at Benham Rise off the coast of Aurora Province.
Benham Rise is a 24-million-hectare undersea plateau that is part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf.
Montero, during the Senate Committee on Economic Affairs hearing on the proposed creation of the Benham Rise Development Authority (BRDA), told senators the refusal to allow China from conducting research was based on the evaluation of the technical agencies that reviewed the application.
Moreover, China did not allow Filipino scientists to join the research trips, she said.
“They were denied because of the non-involvement of Filipino scientists in the conduct of marine research,” she told the committee, adding there were still requests from the Chinese to do research pending before the DFA.
The DFA official was not able to specifically identify the Chinese institution that submitted the requests.
Montero said the inclusion of Filipino scientists was among the conditions set by a United Nations agency on its 2012 ruling declaring Benham Rise as part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf.
Breach of protocol?
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the committee, said a Chinese survey ship was spotted sailing on Benham Rise from November 2016 to January of this year.
He asked Montero if the reported activity of Chinese survey vessels in Benham Rise had the DFA’s consent. The official said she was not sure if these were part of any pending application.
Asked if that could be considered breach of protocol, the DFA official answered that it was difficult to come up with such conclusion as they didn’t have complete details of the incident.
Montero also explained that the area is vast and divided into different zones, and different states could exercise freedom of navigation or innocent passage.
Gatchalian then asked Montero to explain the DFA’s intention in sending a note verbale to China in connection with the discovery of survey ships in Benham Rise.
“We sent a note verbale last year and this year to seek clarification from [China] so that we will be able to determine the facts,” Montero said.
President Rodrigo Duterte earlier said he was aware of the recent activities of China in Benham Rise and that it was part of an earlier agreement during his visit to Beijing last year. Duterte also said he didn’t want to start a fight over Benham Rise.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told senators he was not aware of other claimants to Benham Rise but said other nations recognize that the Philippines have sovereign rights over the area.
“We are also aware that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China is saying that they recognize [the Philippines’]sovereign rights,” he said.
Esperon also said that while he did not see other claimants in the near future, the resources in the area might entice other nations to claim equal rights to fish, which could be allowed provided they get permission from the Philippine government.
He said that apart from displaying the Philippine flag and increasing patrols, the best show of exercise of sovereign rights over Benham Rise is to initiate exploration and development of the region by strengthening the country’s surveillance and research capabilities.
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara is pushing for the creation of the BRDA for the Philippines to explore the area and determine the potential of the underwater plateau.
“We must protect our nation’s marine wealth. We must ensure that the enjoyment of the benefits of Benham Rise accrue to our citizens in the swiftest manner,” said Angara during the hearing.
Esperon expressed openness to the idea of conducting joint exploration with other countries because of the limited resources of the government.
Lawyer Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea said that since the country lacks equipment and funding, it would be better to open research opportunities within the private sector.