'No threat' in Benham Rise – Esperon
At a Senate hearing on the proposed Benham Rise Development Authority on Wednesday, March 29, Esperon cited China's latest statement recognizing Philippine sovereign rights over the maritime territory in dismissing such fears.
Esperon admitted that the Philippines does not know yet what the survey ship actually did in the area, saying it could have been an "innocent passage" or a "possible breach" because the ship stayed there for 3 months. (READ: Duterte shows alarming confusion over Benham Rise)
"We don’t see [any threat]. There could be, but we could not see any right now. We are also aware that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China [is] saying they recognize [the Philippines'] sovereign rights. I don't see [threats] in the near future," Esperon said in a Senate hearing on Wednesday, March 29.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier raised concern after a Chinese survey ship was spotted crisscrossing the underwater plateau for a period of up to 3 months last year, in what was suspected to be a survey of the seabed rich in minerals and gas.
The Chinese government, in response, issued a statement recognizing the Philippines' rights over the area.
Esperon said China's movement in Benham Rise is "innocent passage" but also contradicted himself when he said that the ship stayed there for 3 months in what could be a "possible breach."
The ship stayed in the region starting November 2016, after President Rodrigo Duterte's visit to China, and left in January.
"There is a potential breach but it being a research ship which did not conduct soundings or researches on the seabed, I would not put in the security fence but rather on the economic side of things," Esperon said.
"From my point of view, I'd like to say that the exercise of giving permits can also be exercised by the President whether it's done verbally or not," he added.
Esperon also said later on that the visit might have been based on a "general invitation" made by the President himself. (READ: Duterte 'invited' China, foreign gov'ts to PH waters – Esperon)
Confusion: Was there research or none?
Esperon said there was "no indication" or confirmation that China indeed surveyed the area or if it did, if this was conducted within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
"Research was conducted but it could not be established where, whether it was outside our EEZ or not because they went down [to the seabed]," he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said China requested to conduct research in the region in 2015 but was rejected.
"The usual reasons are the non-involvement of Filipino scientists in the conduct of the marine scientific research," said Maria Lourdes Montero, acting executive director of the Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office of the DFA.
Montero said Acting Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo met with Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to clarify details.
China said it was just exercising its right to freedom of navigation when it passed by the area and stayed there for 3 months.
Duterte earlier said he was advised of China sending survey ships to Benham Rise but he did not see it as an incursion in the country's waters.
"We were advised way ahead but we have the right to ask, 'How are things going? What is your purpose?'" the President said. – Rappler.com