PH eyes structures in Benham Rise amid China's interest
MANILA, Philippines – Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the country will increase naval presence and may even build structures in Benham Rise, amid concerns that China is surveying the underground plateau awarded by the United Nations (UN) to Manila back in 2012.
"We will do something there. Siguro (Perhaps) we will increase our patrols. At the same time, siguro (perhaps) we will also put something there – structures that say this is ours," Lorenzana told reporters on Sunday, March 12.
He added that it was President Rodrigo Duterte who ordered more patrols in the area that is believed to be rich in minerals and gas.
"Sabi niya, increase natin 'yung patrol natin para maipakita naman natin sa ibang tao na (He said we should increase our patrols to show other people that) we have jurisdiction over those areas," said Lorenzana.
Benham Rise is a 13-million-hectare area – bigger than Luzon island – that is located in the country's eastern border. It is far away from the closely watched West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The UN declared Benham Rise part of the Philippines' continental shelf and territory. It means the Philippine has exclusive rights to develop resources there.
Lorenzana revealed last week that a Chinese survey ship was spotted patrolling Benham Rise for a period of up to 3 months last year.
But China dismissed his concerns, saying the ship was exercising innocent passage. Under freedom of navigation, ships may sail inside the exclusive economic zone of a third country if it is beyond its 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.
Lorenzana said the activities of the Chinese survey ship clearly did not constitute innocent passage.
"Alam mo naman 'yung innocent passage, Point A to Point B. Napakabagal eh. Tapos tumitigil sa isang lugar. Magtagal doon ng ilang araw. Lipat naman sa kabilang lugar. So that is not innocent passage," he said.
(We know innocent passage, it's Point A to Point B. But the Chinese ship was very slow. It was stopping in one area to stay there for a few days. And then it would transfer to another area. So that is not innocent passage.)
"We are actually worried kasi noong nakita natin last year, noong pa-ekis-ekis 'yung kanilang survey ano. Kaya naalarma kami. Pinag-usapan nami ni Secretary Esperon saka 'pinarating sa Security Council," he added.
(We are actually worried because from what we saw last year, the survey ship was lingering there. That's why we were alarmed. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr and I talked about it and relayed it to the National Security Council.)
But Lorenzana said the Philippines will accept China's explanation for now.
"We will trust what they say, but at the same time we will keep on patrolling our area and find out kung pupunta pa rin sila doon (if they'll return). As far as we are concerned, they have no business going there," he added.
Filipino scientists explored Benham Rise in 2014, but only reached the shallowest portions. – Carmela Fonbuena / Rappler.com