‘Chinese research in Benham still a mystery’

Paolo Romero (The Philippine Star) - March 30, 2017 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines -  What a Chinese research vessel did during its three-month expedition at Benham Rise last year remains a mystery to the Philippine government, even as security officials have maintained the incident did not pose any threat to the country’s sovereignty.

At the resumption of the hearing yesterday of the Senate economic affairs committee on the Benham Rise, it was also learned the vessel did not have permit to conduct research activities from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said following two meetings of the Cabinet security cluster, President Duterte ordered the “protection” of the resources in Benham Rise.

Esperon, as well as other officials from the DFA, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources could not say exactly what the vessel did in the area.

“I would recommend the show of our flag in the area, meaning patrols… but the more telling (sign of our sovereign rights), is the permanent action of exploration and development,” Esperon told the committee chaired by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian.

The panel has been holding hearings to discuss the creation of the Benham Rise Development Authority as proposed by Sen. Sonny Angara.

The hearings gained urgency after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier disclosed that a Chinese vessel loitered in the area for three months late last year.

Esperon, however, said yesterday the ship – identified as Xiang Yang Hong – passed Taiwan, Japan and other international waters outside the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Ma. Lourdes Montero, executive director of the DFA’s maritime and ocean affairs, told the hearing that based on their records the vessel had no permit, adding the office had also rejected similar applications from certain Chinese institutions in 2015 and 2016.

Esperon, however, said Duterte had made a “general invitation for neighboring, friendly countries to come in” even as concerned government agencies would still have to process specific applications for the conduct of research in the country’s waters.

He stressed that because of improved relations with China, coordination mechanisms are being perfected to avoid confusion.

Gatchalian and Angara pointed out there was apparently a problem when Duterte announced having invited China without the knowledge of concerned agencies.

The national security chief, however, said Duterte, being chief architect of the country’s foreign policy, could virtually issue a permit even “verbally.”

He also said the Chinese vessel, or any other foreign ship for that matter, can pass through the Philippine Sea where Benham Rise is located, citing the doctrine of innocent passage.

Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea told the panel that an article about the research of the Chinese vessel in Benham Rise was published in a newsletter in China.

Apparently, the vessel took samples of seabeds but it was not clear exactly where they were taken.

Batongbacal said there could be an issue if the samples were found to indicate potential mineral resource.

“So this could change the nature of the research to a resource exploration,” he said.

Coast Guard chief Commodore Joel Garcia said while the country should be wary of any supposed research conducted by China or any other foreign government, it should also be noted that thousands of vessels pass through the Philippine Sea daily.


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