MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines is duty bound to protect its sovereign rights over Benham Rise and should oversee and regulate the ships that pass through the area, Malacañang said yesterday.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said other countries are prohibited from staying or building structures in Benham Rise because it belongs to the Philippines.
“First and foremost, Benham Rise belongs to the Filipino people and the government is duty bound to defend our sovereign and territorial right over the region,” Abella said.
“Other countries can exercise innocent passage and territorial navigation. But they are not allowed to stay and establish any structure in the area,” he added.
Abella issued the statement after a Chinese ship was seen in Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare area in the Pacific with untapped natural resources.
Located off the coast of Aurora province, Benham Rise was declared by the United Nations as part of Philippine territory in 2012.
“The Philippines’ claim to Benham Rise is supported by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). The Philippines has the responsibility to oversee and regulate the sailing ships of other countries that pass through the waters around Benham Rise,” Abella said.
The Philippines has asked China to explain the presence of one of its ships in Benham Rise. In response, the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that the Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise as part of its territory even if it is situated within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said a coastal state’s rights over a continental shelf do not affect the legal status of the superjacent waters or of the air space above those waters and foreign ships’ freedom of navigation and innocent passage.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana maintained that the Philippines has sovereign rights over Benham Rise.
Lorenzana, however, admitted that China was correct when it said that the area is not part of Philippine territory.
“Technically speaking, China is correct because the UN only recognized the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone over Benham Rise,” Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana had ordered the Philippine Navy to conduct patrols in Benham Rise after a Chinese ship was spotted lingering in the area.
The Navy refused to say whether it carried out Lorenzana’s directive to accost Chinese ships in Benham Rise.
But sources said the Navy has dispatched one of its vessels to patrol Benham Rise.
China cannot explore for oil and gas in the mineral-rich Benham Rise, according to Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
“We have the exclusive right to explore and exploit oil, gas and other mineral resources in Benham Rise, which has been confirmed by the UNCLOS as part of the extended continental shelf (ECS) of the Philippines,” Carpio said.
“If the Chinese vessels were conducting seismic surveys to look for oil, gas and minerals, then they could not do that because UNLCOS has reserved the oil, gas and minerals in the ECS to the Philippines,” he added.
Carpio, who was part of the legal team that presented the government’s case against China’s reclamation in the West Philippine Sea before the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2015, said the Philippines may again take action if China was indeed conducting mineral exploration in the area.
The SC magistrate clarified that while the Philippines has exclusive right to oil, gas and minerals in Benham Rise, it cannot claim sovereignty over it.
“Benham Rise is not part of Philippine national territory because we do not have sovereignty over Benham Rise,” he said, pointing out that sovereignty is different from sovereign rights.
“Other states, like China, have the right to conduct fishery research in Benham Rise because the fish in the ECS belongs to mankind; surveys on water salinity and water currents because the water column in the ECS belongs to mankind, and depth soundings for navigational purposes because there is freedom of navigation in the ECS,” Carpio explained.
He said there was nothing wrong if China’s ship patrolled Benham Rise for reasons other than mineral exploration.
“If the Chinese vessels were looking for submarine passages and parking spaces, that would be part of freedom of navigation and the Philippines has no reason to complain,” Carpio said.
Former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario warned yesterday against the country’s decision and actions that may lead to “trading away” national interest.
Del Rosario said he sees greater need for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to continue working closely with the Department of National Defense (DND), treaty allies and partners to outline options for consideration of President Duterte in light of negative observations in the South China Sea and Benham Rise.
“Under no circumstances would it be wise for us to trade away our national security,” Del Rosario said.
He said there should be a clear differentiation between promoting national security and enhancing economic diplomacy.
“Our northern neighbor, for example, should not be postured as a total solution to our economic well being, especially to the diminished importance of a host of countries that have been assisting the Philippines to achieve economic growth over the past several years,” Del Rosario, said without naming China as the northern neighbor.
Sen. Sonny Angara said the incursion by Chinese ships in Benham Rise was unauthorized.
Angara called on the government to assert its sovereign rights over the region.
“Benham Rise is undisputedly part of Philippine territory. We have the exclusive rights to explore and exploit its natural resources,” he said.
Angara said it is high time to accelerate the development of Benham Rise as a rich source of alternative energy, marine resources and tourism destination by creating the Benham Rise Development Authority, which he proposed under Senate Bill 312.
He said it has been five years since the UN declared Benham Rise as part of the country’s 200-nautical mile EEZ, yet it remains unexplored.
An expert on maritime law urged the Duterte administration to assert the Philippines’ exclusive sovereign rights to Benham Rise following reports of Chinese ships’ activities in the region.
“We should assert our sovereign rights. We have all the right to demand an explanation (from China),” Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told The STAR in a phone interview.
Batongbacal said only the Philippines can regulate the exploration and exploitation of natural resources in Benham Rise.
Batongbacal said the DND and DFA were correct in seeking an explanation from Beijing over the reported presence of Chinese survey ships in the region.
He cautioned against dismissing the incident without asserting the Philippines’ exclusive sovereign rights in the region.
He said China could not conduct any marine scientific research in the seabed and water column within the EEZ without consent from the Philippines.
But within the ECS, other countries may conduct marine scientific research within the water column as long as it does not pertain to oil exploration.
Batongbacal said the Philippines could build structures within the EEZ.
“We can set up structures along the eastern coast of Luzon, arrange patrols,” he said.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said President Duterte should assert Philippine sovereignty against Chinese incursion in Benham Rise.
“Instead of being concerned with upsetting China, which has promised to invest in the Philippines, the President should send a clear message to China that Benham Rise is part of Philippine territory,” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said. – With Jaime Laude, Edu Punay, Pia Lee-Brago Janvic Mateo, Manny Galvez, Rhodina Villanueva