Senate sets Benham Rise hearing

Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The Senate committee on economic affairs will resume on Wednesday its hearings on Benham Rise to tackle security and environmental concerns following reports of suspicious Chinese activities in the area.

“We have found it prudent to conduct another hearing in order to paint a clearer picture of the facts as we explore long-term strategies to uphold and defend our sovereign rights over Benham Rise,” said committee chairman Sherwin Gatchalian.

He plans to ask the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and defense department for details on the Chinese incursion as well as the diplomatic exchanges between Philippine and Chinese officials on the matter.

The scheduled hearing will also tackle issues on biodiversity conservation and management of marine and energy resources.

“There is an urgent need to conduct extensive scientific research in Benham Rise to fully discover how its development will benefit the Filipino people. These plans must be put into place now so that future generations of Filipinos will be able to reap the benefits of the area’s ecological wealth and unexplored energy resources,” Gatchalian said.

The panel, along with the Senate committee on finance chaired by Sen. Loren Legarda, held a hearing earlier this month on the proposal of Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara to create a Benham Rise Development Authority.

Angara made the proposition before Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana when the intrusion of a Chinese government vessel at Benham Rise was discussed.

Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare undersea plateau off the coast of Aurora province, officially became part of the Philippines in 2012 when the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf ruled that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the undersea landmass was contiguous with the country’s continental shelf and hence, fell under its exclusive economic zone.

It is touted to have vast natural gas deposits and mineral resources.

Angara said it has been five years since the UN approved the country’s territorial claim and there is pressing need to scale up and sustain the scientific study and exploration of the undersea region in light of such unauthorized foreign incursion in the territory.

Senators earlier called on President Duterte to secure Benham Rise from foreign incursion as the government is not without means to protect it.

Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito asked the DFA to file a protest against China while Sen. Francis Pangilinan asked Duterte to raise his hands in surrender to Chinese intrusions.

“We have practically lost the seas west and north of us. We cannot be encircled. The eastern side of the country should be defended as well,” Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said, apparently referring to the Chinese reclamation in the South China Sea.

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, a vocal critic of Duterte, earlier filed a resolution seeking a probe into the President’s pronouncements that the country was practically helpless against Chinese intrusions, and that he has forged an agreement with China to explore Benham Rise.

Despite these sentiments, Gatchalian assured the public that the hearing would be “objective to prevent the undue politicization of the important groundwork to be laid for the responsible stewardship of the resource-rich Benham Rise.”

“The primary purpose of this hearing will be to craft a cohesive executive-legislative strategy for long-term defense and development. If the political opposition is expecting a political fault-finding mission, then they will surely be disappointed,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) has criticized Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio for calling on the government to invoke the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in case Chinese forces attack Philippine vessels in the South China Sea.

The group said in a statement yesterday that, “Carpio must learn from the past as Washington has always left the country hanging during trying times despite existing military pacts.”

It described Carpio’s position on the territorial dispute with China as “puppetry and subservience to the US.”

“His invoking US intervention might just escalate the tension with China instead of allowing for the resolution of the dispute in a peaceful and diplomatic manner,” said Pamalakaya chairman Fernando Hicap.

He added that, “Carpio’s steadfast stand against Chinese incursion is highly notable, but that doesn’t make him a patriot when his response to foreign intervention is another foreign meddling that could also compromise our sovereignty.

“Those unfair US-RP military treaties like the Visiting Forces Agreement and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement deserve to be repealed,” Hicap stressed. – With Ding Cervantes

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