ONLY the Philippines has the right to explore and exploit the natural resources in Benham Rise although the country cannot claim the area as its own territory, a political analyst said Tuesday.
Professor Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER) explained that although Benham Rise belongs to the Philippines, it is not considered part of the country’s territorial waters.
“We do not have sovereignty over it but we have sovereign right which means that all resources in the area belong to us,” Casiple pointed out.
Malacañang on Tuesday also asserted the country’s rights to Benham Rise following China’s claim that the Philippines cannot declare the resource-rich water as its territory.
“First and foremost, Benham Rise belongs to the Filipino people and the Philippine government is duty-bound
to defend and protect our sovereign and territorial right over this region,” Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a news conference. “Other countries can exercise innocent passage and territorial navigation. But they are disallowed to stay and establish any structure in the area.”
He added that the Philippines “has the responsibility to oversee and regulate the sailing ships of other countries that pass through the waters around Benham Rise.”
Benham Rise officially became part of the Philippines in 2012 when the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf ruled that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the undersea landmass was contiguous with the country’s continental shelf and hence, fell under its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the UN approval does not mean that the region is part of the Philippines’ territory.
Benham Rise, a 24-million-hectare undersea plateau off the coast of Aurora province, is believed to have vast natural gas deposits and mineral resources.
The Defense Department recently confirmed the presence of a Chinese survey vessel in Benham Rise but China claimed that it was just exercising its right to innocent passage.
Casiple said that China’s claim is debatable because sovereign rights allow the Philippines to patrol and stop other countries from exploiting the resources in the area.
“They (China) can pass through the area under the freedom of navigation and the right to innocent passage but they are not allowed to conduct other activities there,” he told The Manila Times.
If the Chinese vessel that was spotted in the area was just passing by, the Philippines can let go of the issue, Casiple said. However, it would be a different story if China started sending drill ships.
To protect the area from intruders, Casiple said the Defense department and the Philippines Coast Guard should send more patrol ships and drive away foreign vessels conducting activities in the area.
Senator Sonny Angara however insisted that the government must assert the country’s sovereignty over Benham Rise.
“Benham Rise is undisputedly part of Philippine territory. We have the exclusive rights to explore and exploit its natural resources,” Angara said.
He asked his fellow lawmakers to pass Senate bill 312 which calls for the creation of the Benham Rise Development Authority (BRDA) to accelerate the development of the area as a potential rich source of alternative energy, marine resources, and tourism destination.
Angara, the author of the measure, noted that the creation of BRDA will address the need for a coordinated and integrated approach in the formulation and implementation of development plans and programs that will optimize the area’s full potential.
He added that the promotion and facilitation of public and private investments in Benham Rise will spur economic development in the provinces of Aurora and Isabela.
“It’s been five years since the UN approved our territorial claim, and yet Benham Rise remains largely unexplored. There is a pressing need to scale up and sustain the scientific study and exploration of the undersea region in light of such unauthorized foreign incursion in our territory,” Angara said.
On Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte shrugged off the sighting of a Chinese ship on Benham Rise, saying he was advised by Beijing that it will be sending survey ships to the area.
They have no incursion because we have an agreement,” Duterte told reporters when asked about the reported presence of Chinese surveillance ships at Benham Rise.
“Some people are just blowing it up. We previously agreed. It was a research ship. We were advised of it way ahead.”
Duterte’s comments came after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said last week that Chinese surveillance ships had been seen in Benham Rise.
“The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed,” Lorenzana said.
“I have ordered the Navy that if they see this service ship this year, to start to accost them and drive them away.”
Lorenzana said China may be “looking for a place to put submarines”.
At the House of Representatives, Rep. Gary Alejano of Magdalo party-list warned that the President will be committing treason if he continues to dismiss China’s “invasion” of Benham Rise.
“If the President is not sharing information with Defense Secretary Lorenzana over this apparent permission extended to the Chinese and making such arrangements without the Defense Secretary knowing, that would be tantamount to a sellout. That’s treason,” Alejano, a former Marine captain, told reporters.
Under the1987 Constitution, treason is an impeachable offense.
“The Chinese did the same on Mischief Reef, they were in Scarborough in 2012 and they are doing the same in Benham Rise. We can defend our country. We can’t keep on appeasing the Chinese and send a message that go ahead, go on bullying us in our territory because we supposedly can’t defend ourselves,” Alejano said.
“We appease them for what? For candies? Investment and loans? They do grant us that so that we can’t assert our rights,” Alejano added.
Rep. Ruffy Biazon of Muntinlupa City admitted that the Philippines should take a proactive stance on the matter of Benham Rise.
“The Philippines must take decisive measures to prevent China from creeping into Benham Rise since our country’s sovereignty is at stake. While military confrontation is definitely not an option in order to avoid armed conflict, passive diplomacy is also insufficient, based on China’s track record of disregarding even the UN-led recognition of our rights in the West Philippine Sea,” Biazon said in a statement.
“It’s clear that we must adopt a strategic plan on developing our capability to protect our rights over Benham Rise. The Philippines should adopt plans to establish air and seaports to serve as launch pads for units that will perform security patrols or even interdictions in the Benham Rise area,” he added.
“There is no debate that there is a mismatch between the Chinese and Philippine military, but there shouldn’t be a feeling of inferiority on the part of the Philippines in our claim to what is ours because we have international legal backing as well as existing alliances that can provide muscle against threats to our sovereignty,” Biazon said.
WITH LLANESCA T. PANTI AFP, JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA AND CATHERINE VALENTE