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Philippines declined past Chinese requests over Benham Rise

Sens. Sherwin Gatchalian (left) and Sonny Angara lead the continuation of a Senate hearing looking into security and environmental concerns following reports of suspicious Chinese activities in Benham Rise on Thursday, March 29, 2017. Senate PRIB/Lex Nueva Espana

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine government has turned down requests from China to conduct marine scientific research in the Benham Rise area prior to the sighting of Chinese vessels last year by defense authorities.

Maria Lourdes Montero, officer in charge of a Department of Foreign Affairs' maritime body, said that her office received applications for research on the Philippines' potentially resource-rich undersea plateau in 2015 and 2016.

While failing to specify the number of applications, Montero said these were usually declined after coordination with concerned government agencies due to the "non-involvement of Filipino scientists in the conduct of marine scientific research."

She said the DFA's Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office processes applications from researchers abroad or researching states for permits for scientific activities on the country's seabed.

"Strictly for marine scientific research purposes, but not (economic) exploration because that's governed by certain parameters under our Constitution and domestic law," Montero said at Wednesday's joint Senate hearing by finance and economic affairs panels.

The Department of National Defense earlier this year raised concern over Chinese vessels spotted in Benham Rise off the northeastern portion of the Philippines' landmass. It said that one vessel lingered for three months from September to November.

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Montero, however, could not confirm if the suspicious activities were by the entities whose applications were previously rejected.

Esperon: Duterte can grant permits

National Security Council chief Hermogenes Esperon admitted that there is a "potential breach" in protocol by the Chinese research vessel for overstaying in Benham.

He said that research activities in the area should be well coordinated in advance to state agencies and should follow clear guidelines and fulfill requirements based on international and domestic laws.

"If researches would benefit all of us, then we must allow it," Esperon said at the same hearing.

He added that foreign governments or entities allowed to conduct scientific research are also required to provide its findings to the Philippines.

While there are coordinating agencies, such as that led by Montero, and technical agencies in charge of processing research requests, Esperson said that he thinks the president also has authority over them.

"There has to be coordination. It's in the provisions of UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). But from my point of view, I'd like to say that the exercise of giving permits can also be exercised by the president, whether it's done verbally or not," Esperon said.

The statement came after the DFA, DND and Palace officials issued conflicting reports on the alleged grant to Chinese vessels to conduct research in the marine region.

Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said the DND and the DFA previously received notice that President Rodrigo Duterte entered into a research agreement with China over Benham Rise. The two agencies denied knowledge of the deal.

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