THE military intelligence report that a Chinese research vessel has been seen prowling or exploring the waters of the national territory in Benham Rise off Luzon’s eastern coast is alarming and disturbing.
It was proper that the Department of foreign Affairs has fired off a note to Beijing to protest the incursion. It does not put the matter to rest that China has quickly denied the incursion.
The fact is, we must know more about what the Chinese action was all about, or what its intentions are.
Beijing has admitted that Chinese survey vessels explored the Benham Rise region off Aurora province last year, but said the vessels merely passed through international waters.
This is not a simple matter. The Benham Rise issue is different and distinct from our two countries’ dispute over certain waters and land formations in the South China Sea, which was the subject of the ruling last year of the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague.
Benham Rise is located off eastern Luzon and on our Pacific boundary; so, it is really cause for wonder what Chinese vessels were doing in the area. Scientists and experts believe the region is rich in gas and deuterium deposits. The methane ice deposits are believed to be a potentially larger hydrocarbon resource than the world’s oil, natural gas and coal resources. It is conjectured that they could become the next energy game changer or the “fuel of the future.”
This is the reason why Filipino scientists and international environmental groups are urging the government to establish a strategic management framework for the protection of Benham Rise. The unauthorized foreign incursion in the area has made this action urgent and imperative.
Significantly, Benham Rise is recognized as Philippine territory by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), the treaty body established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) whose function is to facilitate the implementation of the UNCLOS in respect to the establishment of the outer limits of the continental shelf of coastal states.
Benham Rise spans some 24.4 million hectares—about the same size as Luzon, according to the Oceana environmental group.
Oceana says: “Benham Rise is an important marine resource for Filipinos, and holds tremendous potential for discovering more unique species and outstanding samples of marine resources. We need to prioritize its protection, including the pristine Benham Bank as a no-take zone.”
The proposed strategic management framework will encompass biodiversity conservation, fisheries, and commercial and economic activities.
It is commendable and welcome that the Senate leadership has recognized the importance of Benham Rise to the country. Senate action and counsel will help ensure that the Duterte administration will act forthrightly on this issue.
There is a danger that Philippine policy over Benham Rise will be muddled and conflated with ongoing Chinese-Philippine discussions of a possible $10-billion loan for the Philippines.
The objective of achieving friendly and fruitful ties is sound and prudent. But the goal of protecting and ensuring Philippine sovereign rights over Benham Rise is vital and not negotiable.
We submit that it is time for the Philippine government to get smart. It should by now be crystal-clear: There is no such thing as a free lunch or a free $10-billion loan.
Better to know now, than later.