Chinese vessel identified; Benham mission bared

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - April 3, 2017 - 12:00am

The China ship that crisscrossed Benham Rise for months studied not just the undersea plateau within Manila’s authority. It also proceeded to the waters off Samar and Siargao Island, apparently in search of submarine passage to the Pacific. This means the issue is not just of maritime rights, but of national security, experts say.

The vessel was identified as "Xiang Yang Hong-03" in the Mandarin-language China Ocean Newsletter. With 60 crewmen it was dispatched on a "national special task." Unspecified seabed sediment and deep-water samples were taken in the 13 million-hectare extension of the Philippine continental shelf (see http://epaper.oceanol.com/shtml/zghyb/20170124/64896.shtml).

Following is the Mandarin news item, obtained by a Filipino law expert, translated to English by a Chinese-Filipino colleague:


“On 21 January the 'Xiang Yang Hong-03,' a comprehensive scientific research ship carrying 60 crew members, investigators and samples obtained in the Western Pacific, successfully docked at the Xiamen modern terminal, after the successful completion of its task to conduct sediment and benthic biological investigation in the Western Pacific.

"It is reported that in 26 November 2016, the ship 'Xiang Yang Hong-03' set sail from Xiamen to implement a national special task – the Western Pacific seabed and benthic organisms survey. After 58 days of voyage and more than 6,200 miles of travel to the Western Pacific, it obtained seabed sediment samples in 127 stations, upper sea water suspension sample data in 53 stations and benthic biological samples in 13 stations, the successful completion of the established targets, thus creating the best record of the task in history.

“The picture shows ‘Xiang Yang Hong-03’ ship docking at Xiamen modern terminal. (Long Zouxia Chen Fuli)”

The Chinese activity raised public furor after Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana disclosed in March the detection of three Chinese vessels in Benham Rise, east of Aurora province, starting in late 2016. One of the three stayed more than a month on one spot, and left only to have an injured sailor hospitalized in Surigao City in northeastern Mindanao.

Supreme Court Senior Justice Antonio Carpio and international maritime lawyer Jay Batongbacal alerted the government on Philippine sovereign rights over Benham. Declared by the UN in 2012 as part of the Philippines' 150-mile extended continental shelf, it is not Philippine territory but jurisdiction. Only the Philippines may explore and exploit the fisheries, fuel, and mineral resources there.

China claimed it merely made innocent passage, in freedom of navigation under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But the month-long stationing of one of the vessels, going beyond innocent passage, prompted the foreign office to demand an explanation from Beijing. Lorenzana, citing US analysts, said China could be looking for submarine parking.

Subsequently President Rodrigo Duterte said he gave China permission to examine Benham Rise. That contradicted Acting Foreign Sec. Enrique Manalo's revelation that the DFA thrice already had rejected Beijing's requests for permission to research.

It turned out that Duterte was referring to the West Philippine (South China) Sea, over which Manila and Beijing are feuding. There, in disregard of UNCLOS, China asserts territorial sovereignty, despite the UN's rubbishing last July of Beijing's "historical claims." Only after the to-do did the Commander-in-Chief accept a national security briefing.

Asked by The STAR yesterday if China broke UNCLOS and Philippine laws in obtaining seabed sediment samples, Carpio said Manila has yet to determine exactly what those were. Seawater samples can be part of legitimate research, he said, but seabed sampling for exploration is against UNCLOS and the Philippine Constitution.

But the Chinese vessel did not limit itself to Benham, intelligence reports show. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon told the Senate last week that the Chinese vessels ventured off the coasts of Samar and Siargao, an island at the tip of Surigao del Norte. The STAR obtained a copy of the route sketch presented during the hearing on the bill to form a Benham Rise Development Authority.

It was unclear from the map if the ships entered Philippine 12-mile territorial waters without Manila's consent. Still it showed that Benham was not the sole area of research, but also the Samar-Siargao navigational passage. That, an expert who requested anonymity said, encompasses national security.

"The Americans may be right," the analyst said. “The research ship mapped out possible submarine passages off the coast of the Philippines between Samar and Siargao. Chinese submarines would enter or exit the Western Pacific by passing between Samar and Siargao.”

Foreign commercial vessels have been passing through the waters north of Mindanao, to and from Samar-Siargao in the east and Balabac Strait at the bottom of Palawan in the West. Manila allows it under UNCLOS, and has yet to enact an Archipelagic Sea Lanes Law. The foreign vessels have to identify themselves, and in the case of submarines must surface; they may not stop except in distress, and should abide by Philippine laws on environment protection and waste disposal; nuclear-armed vessels are prohibited.

The expert went on: "Chinese submarines based in Subi Reef or Mischief Reef In the WPS/SCS can enter the Balabac Strait, pass the Mindanao Gulf and exit through Samar-Siargao. This is an alternative route to enter/exit the Western Pacific in case the Bashi Channel (in Batanes off northern Luzon) is interdicted by the Americans."

Superpowers' submarines are known to violate each other's and weak state's territorial waters by secret underwater navigation instead of innocent passage.

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