2 warships deployed in Benham dock at Poro Point

Jun Elias - The Philippine Star

SAN FERNANDO CITY, La Union , Philippines  – Two of the Philippine Navy warships deployed to Benham Rise have docked at the Poro Point seaport here to get logistical support.

The BRP Ramon Alcaraz and BRP Sultan Kudarat arrived early Thursday and are expected to go back to Benham Rise on Monday, officials said.

“We are here to fill up our logistic requirements like fuel, food and others, and are standing by for new directives from main headquarters. We are going back to Benham Rise,” said Commander Jeff Rene Nadugo, the commanding officer of Alcaraz.

In the meantime, Alcaraz will be open for public viewing on Saturday and Sunday, he said.

Nadugo said they are taking their provisions from the naval forces of Northern Luzon at Poro Point.

Nadugo said the two vessels went on patrol to check the situation in Benham Rise.

Alcaraz has started patrolling Benham Rise, the 13 million-hectare undersea region and biodiversity hot spot east of Luzon.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had ordered the Navy to send ships to patrol Benham Rise after a Chinese survey ship was spotted in the area for three months last year.

Lorenzana said the Navy would deploy the BRP Gregorio Velasquez to conduct a hydrological survey of the area.

In 2009, the Philippines lodged a full territorial claim to Benham Rise with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

The claim was granted in 2012, with Benham Rise as an extension of the Philippines’ continental shelf, located some 350 nautical miles off Aurora province in the country’s eastern seaboard.

Lawmakers are studying the proposal made by Sen. Sonny Angara to create the Benham Rise Development Authority to oversea the protection and exploitation of resources in the area.

Citing scientific studies, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said the area is a rich source of methane gas hydrates that can be used for the country’s future energy requirements.

“We have the talent and knowledge and skill. Academe is full of very intelligent people. The problem is we don’t have the equipment and the resources to buy (research vessels),” Gatchalian told CNN Philippines.

He said research vessels used by China, Japan and Korea – which are considered the top countries in terms of maritime science – cost anywhere from P1.5 billion to P5 billion.

“Research really brings in knowledge and value. So if you can merge their equipment and our talent then we can jointly conduct exploration in that area,” Gatchalian said.

He reiterated the Philippines has only sovereign rights, not sovereignty, over Benham Rise. This means foreign vessels can pass through the area, or even conduct basic research, under the doctrines of freedom of navigation and innocent passage.

However, it is only the Philippines that can allow deeper exploration and exploitation of resources in the area.

During last Wednesday’s hearing at the Senate, officials told lawmakers that what the Chinese research vessel did in its three-month expedition over Benham Rise last year remains a mystery.

It was also learned the vessel did not have permit to conduct research activities from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

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

Former national security adviser Roilo Golez said the country is now facing maritime security challenges on two fronts borne out of China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea and Benham Rise.

Golez pointed out Benham Rise should be protected and secured, being part of the country’s maritime domain.

The former Parañaque City congressman and naval officer dismissed China’s claims of innocent passage of their survey ship in the area.

The government has an obligation to secure and protect Benham Rise, being part of the country’s maritime domain, he said.

“Defending Benham Rise is mandatory under Article 12, Section 2 of the Philippine Constitution. This is not an option but mandatory because the Constitution is very clear and I quote: the state shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters and exclusive economic zones,” Golez said.

Golez said China’s maritime and territorial claim to almost the entire South China Sea, as well as its activities in Benham Rise, formed part of Beijing’s sustained power projection in the Asia-Pacific region.

This power projection has already started from Beijing’s first island chain in the South China Sea and onward toward the Western Pacific where it is planning to put a second island chain.

He said these activities by Beijing are now being monitored by Japan and the US, as well as other countries in the region.

Beijing’s deployment of its survey ship at Benham Rise last year could be part of its long-range construction plan of the second island chain in the Pacific, Golez said.

He said the Philippines could contribute in stabilizing the security by not only deploying naval ships to conduct maritime patrol at Benham Rise, but also sending the survey ship BRP Gregorio Velasquez.  – With  Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude

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