CASIGURAN, Aurora: In a symbolic assertion of Philippine sovereignty, the military on Monday planted the Philippine flag at the Philippine Rise, the mineral-rich underwater ridge in the Pacific.
Divers with the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Northern Luzon Command went down 72 meters at the 13-million-hectare territory to attach the Philippine flag to a post, in rites marking the 119th anniversary of the declaration of Philippine independence from Spain.
Fifty-one divers jumped off from BRP Davao del Sur. Thirty-six divers held miniature flags. It took 19 minutes to go down the undersea ridge, and the same amount of time to go up.
“It was not easy, but we did it,” Maj. Christopher Constantino, one of the divers, told reporters aboard the navy ship.
The flag used underwater, measuring 8 feet by 8 feet and 8 inches, was made of fiberglass, and built upon the request of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
Civilians and lawmakers aboard BRP Davao del Sur, the Philippine Navy’s largest ship, held a flag-raising ceremony. Rep. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo of Aurora and Rep. Leopoldo Bataoil of Pangasinan were aboard the vessel.
Northern Luzon commander Lt. Gen. Romeo Tanalgo said the simultaneous flag ceremonies showed that the area is “within our sovereignty, within our claims.”
“We have just hoisted a laminated flag underneath [Philippine Rise]. This is to assert our sovereignty or our sovereign rights over Benham Rise or the Philippine Rise,” he told reporters.
The planting of the Philippine flag was a directive from President Rodrigo Duterte, he said.
Capt. Richard Gonzaga, the ship’s commanding officer, said: “We are willing to do this for the country, for our nation. Your Philippine Navy is always prepared if we will be needed for this kind of opportunity and any other services for the Filipino people.”
Last month, Duterte signed an executive order renaming Benham Rise to Philippine Rise, which is part of the country’s extended continental shelf, following reports Chinese survey ships were seen in the area last year.
Within the extended continental shelf, the Philippines can invoke “sovereign rights,” which allows the exploration, exploitation, conservation and management of natural resources. Foreigners seeking to explore and exploit the area must secure the country’s consent, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Chinese ship transits
On the way from Casiguran, Aurora, a Chinese vessel was spotted in the area. Gonzaga said the ship was only “transiting,” noting that foreign ships have the right to pass above Philippine Rise.
“But they cannot do any other activities that we are authorized to do such as what we are doing, exploration, but aside from that, it is just fine if they will just pass by the area,” he said.
The ship contacted BRP Davao del Sur, he said.
Officials said the flag would be monitored from time to time to ensure that it would not be removed from its location.
“We hoisted it, we planted the flag at 207 feet below [the seas of Philippine Rise], on top of the rise,” Tanalgo said.
“We really have to stake our claim here in the Philippine Rise,” Tanalgo added.