MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise as its own territory despite it being part of the country's 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, Beijing said.
In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the submission of the Philippines in 2009 with respect to the limits of its continental shelf in the Benham Rise region. This enables the Philippines to carry out exploration and development of natural resources in the area.
"But it does not mean that the Philippines can take it as its own territory," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a recent statement.
The Department of National Defense earlier confirmed that Chinese survey ships have conducted oceanographic research in the region.
The Department of Foreign Affairs had sent a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Manila to seek clarification on the reported incursion into the country's territorial waters.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, however, said that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) states that "a coastal state's rights over the continental shelf do not affect the legal status of the superjacent waters or of the air space above those waters, nor do they affect foreign ships' navigation freedom in the coastal state's EEZ and on the high seas, or their innocent passage through the coastal state's territorial sea as supported by international law."
Meanwhile, international law professor Professor Julian Ku of Hofstra University said that the Chinese Foreign Ministry's response to the issue is confusing and troubling.
Geng noted that the UN commission approved the Philippines' submission in 2009 claiming Benham Rise is on its extended continental shelf, but the spokesperson also claims that the UN approval does not mean that the region is part of the Philippines' territory.
"Actually, that's what it means. UNCLOS Art. 76(8) makes those [Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf] recommendations 'final and binding' if [the Philippines] accepts (it did)," Ku said on Twitter.
Paragraph 1, Article 77 of the UNLCOS states that a state has sovereign rights over its continental shelf for the purpose of "exploring it and exploiting its natural resources."
"The rights referred to in paragraph 1 are exclusive in the sense that if the coastal State does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources, no one may undertake these activities without the express consent of the coastal State," the UNCLOS states.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang admitted that Chinese vessels sailed across the waters northeast of Luzon to for marine research last year.
The Chinese official said that their vessels were only exercising freedom of navigation and the right to innocent passage "without conducting any other activities or operations."
"The remarks by some individuals from the Philippines are not consistent with the facts," Geng said in a press briefing last Friday.
The reference to "freedom of navigation" and innocent passage stands in contrast to Beijing's repeated objection to the United States Navy's operations in international waters of the South China Sea, west of the Philippines.
According to Geng, foreign ministries of both China and the Philippines have sorted out the facts and addressed the issue last January.
"Working together, China and the Philippines have properly resolved their differences, added momentum to the development of the bilateral relationship, and driven forward practical cooperation across the board," Geng said.
"It is hoped that individuals of the Philippines will stop playing up the false information and do more to promote mutual trust," the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson added.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had said that China's latest move was "very worrying."
He has issued a directive to the Philippine Navy to drive away any Chinese ship seen in Benham Rise.
Situated about 250 kilometers east of Dinapigue, Isabela, Benham Rise has untapped natural resources and is said to be wider than Luzon, Samar and Leyte combined.