MALACAÑANG on Thursday struggled to answer lingering questions on whether Beijing really sought President Rodrigo Duterte’s permission to conduct research over the Benham Rise region east of Luzon, with two key Cabinet departments denying knowledge of such an arrangement.
In a news conference, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the Chinese vessels were in the area – a 13-million-hectare region said to be rich in mineral resources and is part of the country’s extended continental shelf – for “research” and there was “no incursion.”
“I’m sure he is… The President was still very, very careful that he [was]protecting our sovereign rights over the Benham Rise,” Abella told reporters.
Security analyst and former Magdalo partylist representative Ashley Acedillo had called on the President to disclose the details of his agreement with China over Benham Rise.
Acedillo said that if Chinese ships indeed surveyed Benham Rise with Duterte’s blessings, then the Philippines should get a copy of the findings.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), the Philippines has exclusive “sovereign rights” to explore and exploit natural resources within its extended continental shelf, which spans up to 350 nautical miles from its land mass.
Duterte, who seeks to improve ties with China that were strained in the previous administration because of the South China Sea dispute, has downplayed the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise, saying it was based on an “agreement.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who broke the news that Chinese ships were seen last year in the area, was surprised by Duterte’s comments, saying he was not aware of any agreement involving Benham Rise.
The acting secretary of Foreign Affairs, Enrique Manalo, on Thursday admitted he was not aware that China was given permission by President Duterte to sail on Benham Rise.
Flanked by his assistant secretaries, Manalo exuded confidence in answering questions from reporters, but when the Benham Rise issue was raised, he said he was not the right person to answer.
“That I am not in the position to answer,” he said, adding that he did not hear Duterte’s speech early this week in which the President said he talked to Chinese officials regarding Benham Rise.
“What is important is that the Chinese foreign ministry had already said that the Philippines has sovereign rights on Benham Rise and that they respect it,” he said.
Manalo said any ship going to the Benham Rise must ask permission.
Pressed for more information, he added that he did not know if Benham Rise was discussed when Philippine officials met with their counterparts in a meeting last January
Abella said there was “no conflict” in government accounts on the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise.
“There was no exclusion, there was no conflict, it was just a question of referring to separate matters at the same time,” Abella said.
Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th, a staunch Duterte critic, is seeking an investigation into the supposed “agreement,” saying the President could have committed an impeachable offense.
But Abella said there were no grounds to impeach the President over his recent statements on the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise.
“No treason, betrayal of public trust, bribery, graft and corruption, and high crime was committed,” Abella said in a statement.
“The President is fully committed to his constitutional duty to protect and defend the nation’s interests, including those granted to us by Unclos and other similar treaties which the Philippines is party to,” he added.
WITH A REPORT FROM JAIME R. PILAPIL