DFA OKs Benham Rise study by US, Japan, Korea  ­

In an interview with The STAR, Cayetano said the administration of President Duterte approved 13 applications from the US, nine from Japan, and four from South Korea. OCEANA/UPLB

DFA OKs Benham Rise study by US, Japan, Korea ­
Ding Cervantes (The Philippine Star) - January 24, 2018 - 12:00am

CAPAS, Tarlac, Philippines — While the government has approved two applications from China to do research in Benham Rise, it has approved a larger number of such requests from the United States, Japan and South Korea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said yesterday.

In an interview with The STAR, Cayetano said the administration of President Duterte approved 13 applications from the US, nine from Japan, and four from South Korea.

He said the information should debunk claims by critics that the administration was biased for China and that the latter’s planned exploration in Benham Rise was against the interest of Filipinos.

“I challenge them to prove that even an inch of territory and sovereignty has been compromised under the Duterte government. We are even better than the past administration in terms of territorial claims,” he said at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the P13.16-billion National Government Administrative Center (NGAC) in the proposed New Clark City here.

He also stressed permits given to foreign countries do not yet cover actual exploration. “They will just do research work. The matter of exploration would need another permit from concerned agencies,” he added.

Cayetano noted that China submitted 18 applications for marine exploration in Benham Rise, but only two were approved.

“The US submitted 13 applications and all were granted, Japan had nine applications and we granted all nine. Japan had four applications and we granted all four,” he said.

Cayetano said foreign groups applying for exploration projects were required to allow Filipino scientists to join their endeavor as well as ensure transparency in the sharing of scientific information gathered.

“What do we stand to lose (in allowing foreign scientists to explore Benham Rise)? The best scientific minds from all over the world will do the research and share the information with us,” he said.

Cayetano downplayed fears that China would exploit fishery resources, saying the government would make sure Chinese activities would be limited to exploration.

“They all must comply with Philippine laws or we would bar them at Benham Rise,” he stressed.

He also assuaged fears of possible emergence of another territorial conflict in Benham Rise or Philippine Rise, since the United Nations had clearly affirmed the Philippines’ sovereignty rights over the 13-million square kilometer area east of Luzon. “So there is no question on this, no matter who we allow to do research and explore the area,” he said.

Cayetano said good relations don’t necessarily have to be sacrificed in the pursuit of territorial claims.

“But how come our relationship with Malaysia and Vietnam is getting to be much better despite the dispute? That is what the President is saying,” he said, referring to the two countries’ own claims in the South China Sea.

‘Research’ begins today

In Manila, Rep. Gary Alejano of party-list Magdalo said China’s month-long maritime research in Philippine Rise is scheduled to begin today.

“It will start tomorrow and last up to February 25. Concerned government agencies should closely monitor it, if they can, so they would know what is happening there,” Alejano told a news conference yesterday.

It was Alejano who blew the whistle on the approval by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) of the “maritime scientific research” application of the Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences (IO-CAS).

Alejano, a former Marine captain, urged the government to be “careful and prudent in granting any access to our waters, especially to China, which is claiming 80 percent of our exclusive economic zone.”

“Interestingly, there was a similar request from a French-based non-profit organization, Tara Expeditions Foundation, to conduct marine research in the general area where the Chinese will be conducting their research. However, the request was declined,” he said.

He said the Duterte administration should have preferred the French group’s proposal “because we have no territorial conflict with France, and geographically speaking, France is not an immediate security threat to us compared to China.

“In terms of the capability, I think it is also safe to assume that the French foundation is competent as IO-CAS, having already accomplished high-level scientific research missions across the world’s oceans,” he said.

Alejano pointed out that China has been seeking permission to conduct research in Benham Rise and has consistently refused the proposed involvement of Filipino experts in its project.

“China has been adamant on exploring Philippine Rise and they have no intention of involving Filipino scientists. It seems that China was only forced to collaborate with UP-MSI for the sake of getting the permit,” he said, referring to the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute. 

“Given this initial behavior, we should be worried on whether the Philippines will be given equal access to all information culled by the joint project,” he stressed.

He recalled that in 2016, Chinese vessels were spotted surveying Benham Rise for three months without the knowledge and permission of the DFA.

“It turned out later that President Duterte gave them the authority without his officials and the Filipino people knowing it,” he said.

“What is really the intention of the Duterte administration in allowing such activity at the expense of our national security?” he asked.

Sen. Bam Aquino, meanwhile, said the Senate should review the Duterte administration’s policy in dealing with China.

Aquino renewed his call for a Senate inquiry into the government’s dealings with China, saying it was “long overdue” given the recent developments in Philippine waters being contested by China.

Last September, Aquino filed Resolution 158 seeking to clarify the country’s foreign policy direction to determine the administration’s position on several issues, including the West Philippine Sea, Benham Rise and other dealings with China.

“It’s important for the Senate and the people to know the foreign policy of the administration, especially with regards to China,” Aquino said.

 “This is a serious issue and the Philippines has too much to lose,” he said.

He said the inquiry should center on the details of deals entered into by the government with China, especially on the conduct of maritime scientific research in the Philippine Rise. – With Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero

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