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After Navy, Coast Guard patrols Benham Rise

For the first time yesterday, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrolled Benham Rise, following the reported presence of Chinese vessels in the area declared by the United Nations as part of the extended continental shelf of the Philippines. File photo

MANILA, Philippines - For the first time yesterday, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrolled Benham Rise, following the reported presence of Chinese vessels in the area declared by the United Nations as part of the extended continental shelf of the Philippines.

The PCG said a Britten Norman Islander aircraft was sent to the area to conduct maritime domain survey.

No PCG station or facility has ever been put up in Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare area off the coast of Aurora province that has been a usual pathway of typhoons from the Pacific Ocean.

Due to the vastness of the area, PCG spokesperson Commander Armand Balilo said the PCG personnel manning the aircraft had to refuel in Baler, Aurora before continuing the surveillance.

Recently, the Philippine Navy’s cutter BRP Ramon Alcaraz surveyed the vast waters of Benham Rise.

Government officials earlier invoked the country’s sovereign rights over Benham Rise following the passage of Chinese vessels in the territory.

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Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio explained that the Philippines has the exclusive right to explore and exploit the oil, gas and other mineral resources in Benham Rise, which has been confirmed by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) as part of the country’s extended continental shelf or ECS.

Benham Rise is said to have untapped natural resources, including rich mineral deposits, and is said to be wider than Luzon, Samar and Leyte combined.

Carpio clarified, however, that while the Philippines has the exclusive right on oil, gas and minerals in Benham Rise, the country cannot claim sovereignty over it because it is “not part of Philippine national territory.”

The associate justice explained that other states like China “have the right to conduct in Benham Rise fishery research 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.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian yesterday underscored the need for the Philippine government to be vigilant on the motives of China, as well of other nations, on the resource-rich Benham Rise and to tighten rules and coordination on the issuance of permits to other countries and foreign entities seeking to conduct scientific research in the area.

Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate committee on economic affairs, said that up to now, no one knows what exactly the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong did during its three-month expedition crisscrossing the Philippine Sea as well as waters near Taiwan and Japan late last year.

The senator asked the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to continue pressing Beijing for information on what the vessel did, and the Coast Guard and the Navy to establish major stations or bases somewhere in the eastern seaboard to closely monitor activities in the Philippine Sea.

“There is really a question mark on the supposed research of the Chinese vessel,” Gatchalian told radio station dzBB. “Definitely, we have to be wary of their intentions in our exclusive economic zone, not only with China, but [also] with other nations.”

He said that while there are no claimants to Benham Rise, one could be not so sure in the future.

During the hearing of the committee on Benham Rise last week, DFA’s maritime and ocean affairs executive director Ma. Lourdes Montero said that the vessel had no permit, and that the office had also rejected similar applications from certain Chinese institutions in 2015 and 2016.

This was because the Chinese applicants refused to allow Filipino scientists to join the expedition, as required by the Philippine government in issuing permits for maritime research by foreign entities, she said.

Gatchalian, however, pointed out the vessel proceeded with its voyage, citing the doctrine of freedom of navigation.

Citing provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), he said the doctrine could only be invoked if a foreign vessel conducts only basic research on salinity and sea temperatures, among others.

“Whatever, they (foreign researchers) will discover there (Benham Rise), they will use only for their own benefit,” the senator said.

In a related development, the Department of Science and Technology’s Benham Rise resource mapping project deal with a Japanese agency fell through after the initiative has been excluded in the DOST’s research and development agenda in the next five years. – With Paolo Romero, Rainier Allan Ronda

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