MANILA, Philippines — Contradicting the statements of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, President Rodrigo Duterte revealed that he was advised of China's sending of survey ships to Benham Rise.
Lorenzana had expressed concern over the reported incursion of Chinese vessels in the 13-million-hectare area off the coast of Aurora.
The president, however, does not see the reported presence of Chinese ships in the region as an "incursion" in the country's territorial waters.
"We were advised way ahead but we have the right to ask ‘how are things going? What is your purpose?" Duterte told reporters on Monday.
This statement agrees with the Chinese Foreign Ministry's claim that the Philippines allowed Beijing to send research vessels in the region.
"In response to the Philippines' concerns about activities by Chinese marine research vessels, foreign ministries of the two countries have had a friendly exchange of views last January to sort out the facts and properly address the issue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a press briefing last Friday.
Geng added that Chinese vessels for marine research were only "exercising navigation freedoms and the right to innocent passage."\
On the other hand, the Defense Secretary had ordered the Navy to drive away Chinese ships in the area which may be "looking for a place to put submarines."
"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.
Duterte remains confident that China will not build facilities on Benham Rise the same way that they did with the features in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
"They will not do it at this time. Manggugulo lang 'yan... because America wants to pick a fight there," Duterte said in a press conference at Malacañang Monday evening.
The president admitted that he "cannot match the might of China" if the country goes to war due to a territorial dispute.
Duterte, however, said that he will instruct the military to assert the country's ownership of Benham Rise but in a friendly way.
"My order to my military, you go there and tell them straight that this is ours, but I say it in friendship," Duterte said.
In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Philippines' submission with respect to the limits of its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise region.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the Philippines cannot claim the region as its own territory despite the UN ruling.
Article 77 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a state has sovereign rights over its continental shelf for the purpose of "exploring it and exploiting its natural resources." — with a video report by Efigenio Toledo IV