MANILA, Philippines (First published Mar. 16, 7:28 p.m.) — The Philippines does not yet have a policy allowing China to conduct research in Benham Rise, the acting Foreign Affairs secretary said Thursday.
“We have no policy on that. There are ships through the area exercising freedom of navigation. But the fact that this is within the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines any ship would have to get permission from the Philippines if they wish to undertake research,” Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said.
Manalo, asked if there was such permission given to Chinese vessels spotted in the region, responded: “I’m not aware of anything along the line you said.”
This, despite President Rodrigo Duterte saying earlier this week that China had given advance notice that its ships would be in the waters off the coast of northeastern Luzon.
“We previously agreed that they can, research ship naman ’yung ano…we do not want to pick a fight,” Duterte said Monday. The chief executive said that he did not see the reported presence of these Chinese ships in the region as an incursion into the country’s waters. “We were advised way ahead but we have the right to ask ‘how are things going? What is your purpose?” he said in a briefing at the Palace.
He also scoffed at concerns over the presence of China’s ship in waters in Benham Rise, saying these were “exaggerated.”
Duterte’s statement agreed with the statement of China's Foreign Ministry and contradicted the opinion of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who expressed his concern over the activities of the Chinese vessels.
“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,” who ordered the Philippine Navy to drive away Chinese ships in the area.
China has acknowledged that its ships had passed through the area but said that the ships did not untertake any surveying of the area.
"China welcomes and appreciates President Duterte's comments. Just as what President Duterte has said, China and the Philippines have conducted communication on the issue, friendly exchanged ideas, clarified facts and handled it properly," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday.
Manalo also told reporters that the DFA has not received any reports that Chinese vessels were conducting seismic surveys and studies in the waters.
“We’ve not [received] reports to that effect and we are in touch with the agencies concerned who are also monitoring. I’m not aware of any reports that specific,” he said when asked about the matter.
Manalo could not directly say, however, whether the DFA had been informed that Chinese ships would be passing through the area as Duterte said.
“I’m not in position to answer that type of question,” Manalo, who was only appointed this month after Perfecto Yasay failed to secure confirmation of his appointment at the Commission on Appointments, said.
Manalo added that the country has already sent a note verbal to Beijing because of the reports it received.
“If there’s a reported movement, we would, of course, send a note verbale to seek information,” he said.
Upon being pressed to answer if the sending of the note verbale was an indication of DFA lack of awareness of Chinese presence in Benham Rise, Manalo said that he did not know because many dates were involved.
Manalo emphasized in the press conference attended by many career officials of the DFA that Duterte had given instructions for the Philippine Navy to increase its patrols of the waters.
Manalo also refused to directly answer the question on whether the Philippines should be concerned by these latest Chinese incursions into Philippine waters.
“It is in our interest and in our duty that other countries observe those rights as stated in the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). There is the right of innocent passage and we are not questioning that. But, certainly, any part that is within our sovereign rights is something that we should be prepared to monitor and if necessary protect,” he said.
Manalo also underlined that the Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the area had also been recognized by China through its foreign ministry.
“What I’m definitely sure is China has reaffirmed that the Philippines has sovereign rights over Benham Rise area,” he said. “They just reaffirmed that the Philippines had sovereign rights over the Benham Rise.”
Manalo also refused to divulge the contents of the verbal note that the Philippines sent. He simply said that the country sent this note to seek clarification from China on the reported Chinese presence in Benham Rise. — with video report by Efigenio Toledo IV