MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Philippine Navy sent one of its most capable warships to Benham Rise in the wake of reports that China showed interest in the territory that’s been declared a part of the country’s continental shelf.
BRP Ramon Alcaraz, one of 3 hand-me-down vessels from the US Coast Guard, was deployed this week to patrol the underwater plateau located in the country’s eastern border.
“The navy will henceforth regularly patrol Benham Rise partly due to past Chinese activities there but more importantly, because it is part of our continental shelf and awarded to us by the UN,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told Rappler in a text message on Friday, March 24.
Lorenzana earlier this month revealed and raised concerns about a Chinese survey ship that was spotted criss-crossing the territory known to be rich in mineral and gas for as long as 3 months.
He said these activites should be protested or the Philippines faces the risk of China violating the country’s rights with impunity. He said then that he had ordered the navy to patrol the area.
BRP Alcaraz commander Jeff Nadugo said the navy would have challenged Chinese presence there had they spotted it on time, he told ABS-CBN in an exclusive report.
“Mayroon po tayong protocol. Kung sakaling mang nakita po natin yan, i-challenge din po natin kung ano ang intentions niya? Ano ang purpose niya? Kung ang intention niya ay mag-research ay hindi po nararapat. Kailangan po natin paalisin,” Nadugo told reporter Chiara Zambrano, who was invited to cover the deployment.
(We have a protocol. Had we seen that, we would challenge it to ask for its intentions there. What is its purpose? If its intention is to conduct research, it is not allowed. We will have to shoo them away.)
In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf confirmed that Benham Rise as part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the continental shelf comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas 200 nautical miles (NM), or 370 kilometers, from a state’s baselines or “edges.”
President Rodrigo Duterte was criticized for shrugging off China’s presence in Benham Rise. He claimed he was informed beforehand and allowed Chinese activities there, a stark contrast to the reaction of both his defense and foreign affairs secretaries. (READ: Duterte shows alarming confusion over Benham Rise)
China was initially combative, saying the Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise to be its own. But it later softened to clarify that it is respecting the Philippine’s sovereign rights over Benham Rise.
The uproar over Benham Rise was followed by concerns about reported plans by China to build on Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal because of pronouncements made by the mayor of Sansha City.
Duterte was criticized again for his defeatist attitude when he said the country “cannot stop China” because the Philippine military has no chance against the Asian giant.
Calls were made for Duterte to defend the shoal as Filipino maritime experts presented evidence that it is part of Philippine territory. (READ: 5 ways Duterte can defend Scarborough without going to war)