DFA: Phl may ink deal with China on Benham

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines does not have a policy allowing China to conduct research in Benham Rise, but President Duterte may enter into binding agreements with China to explore the gas-rich underwater plateau, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said he is not aware if China was given permission to conduct research in Benham Rise, an underwater area off the provinces of Aurora and Isabela believed to have gas deposits.

“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,” he told reporters on Thursday.

When asked if the DFA was informed about Chinese ships passing through Benham Rise, Manalo said, “I’m not in a position to answer that type of question.”

But Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said yesterday President Duterte may enter into binding agreements with other countries such as China to explore Benham Rise.

“The President can enter into executive agreements; whatever he agrees to binds the Philippines,” Jose said in an interview with ANC.

“The agreement has to be legal,” Jose said in a separate text message to The STAR

Jose said he is also not aware of any request from China to explore Benham Rise.

Palace: China      not monitoring    US submarines

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, meanwhile, has denied that Chinese vessels in Benham Rise were out to monitor the presence of US submarines in the country’s continental shelf.

“We have not heard of such information,” he said.

He also reiterated Duterte’s previous statement that he does not want the Philippines to be caught in the conflict between the US and China.

“Be that as it may, the President will not allow that as he said in numerous occasions that he does not want the Philippines to be caught in the middle of a conflict between the United States and China,” he added.

‘Duterte cautioned on Benham deal’

Senators yesterday asked Duterte to be careful in entering into agreements with other countries to survey Benham Rise and not to limit the country’s partnership to just China.

They also sought more measures to secure the country’s sovereign rights over the area.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III prodded the DFA to work harder to secure international recognition of the country’s rights over Benham Rise.

Pimentel reiterated that in 2012, the United Nations favorably ruled on the Philippines’ claim over Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare area off the coast of Aurora province. The UN said it is part of the Philippine continental shelf and territory.

Benham Rise has untapped natural resources and is said to be wider than Luzon, Samar and Leyte combined.

Military strategists for the country’s territorial defense have revived proposals for the building of Pacific Coast highway that will run from Sta. Ana, Cagayan down to Dingalan, Aurora passing through the coastal mountains of Isabela. 

The building of the Pacific Coast highway has been proposed not only to spur economic development in areas facing the Pacific Ocean but also to bolster the country’s territorial defense of Benham Rise. 

“There are no other claimants, there is no other land mass near it, so the DFA must make sure we get our entitlements under the law,” Pimentel said in a telephone interview. 

He said the DFA should also clearly apprise lawmakers as well as the general public on the status of the country’s claims as well as the situation in the area. 

Sens. Sonny Angara and Sherwin Gatchalian pressed for the immediate passage of the bill seeking to create the Benham Rise Development Authority.

Gatchalian also sought clarification from Malacañang as to exactly what kind of agreement has been entered into by the Duterte administration and China.

He said Duterte must not limit the country’s partnership with just China.

He also said some civilian government agencies and non-government organizations have been collaborating with foreign counterparts to explore Benham Rise as the Philippines lacks resources and technology to undertake such research on its own.

“Now there is reportedly permission for Chinese troops so it’s not clear what is being allowed to be done in that area. Is it for environmental aspects?” he added.

Last week, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was not aware of any agreement between the Philippines and China involving the conduct of research in Benham Rise.

Lorenzana also expressed concern over information that a Chinese survey ship was spotted in Benham Rise.

The DFA sent a note verbale to China, asking Beijing to explain the presence of the survey ship in Philippine territory.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said China “fully respects the Philippines’ rights over the continental shelf in the Benham Rise, and there is no such thing as China challenging those rights.”  – With Paolo Romero, Helen Flores, Jaime Laude, Christina Mendez, Evelyn Macairan

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