Duterte ‘invited’ China, foreign gov’ts to PH waters – Esperon

Camille Elemia
Duterte ‘invited’ China, foreign gov’ts to PH waters – Esperon
'What is really so harmful with having a research ship [there]?' asks National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr on the presence of a Chinese survey ship in Benham Rise for 3 months

MANILA, Philippines – For National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, there was no breach of protocol when a Chinese survey ship stayed in Benham Rise for 3 months as this was based on a “general invitation” made by President Rodrigo Duterte himself.

Esperon said this on Wednesday, March 29, at a Senate hearing on the proposed Benham Rise Development Authority that centered on the supposed research conducted by China in Benham Rise from November 2016 to January 2017, without the knowledge of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of National Defense (DND).

“The tone of our joint statement from China is that the President has indeed invited foreign ships to come in; even make a call on our ports. That will include research,” Esperon said, adding there is no threat in the area declared as a continental shelf of the Philippines in 2012.

“So there’s a general invitation for that, but we have our specific processes for this. Indeed there have been no permits given but in the future, as suggested, we really should go into joint research,” he added, saying there have been “other” foreign ships spotted in Philippine waters.

Esperon did not elaborate on what these other foreign ships were, and whether  they entered Philippine waters in the same way.

He said, however, that while there was an “invitation” from the President, foreign ships should still observe a process.

“Our relations with neighbors have warmed up. There is the general invitation extended to neighboring countries but there are still protocols to follow. We have a way of going into particulars. The research ships must file permission with the DFA, but that is already a general invitation,” Esperon said.

The Chinese survey ship began its operation in November, after President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China, and ended in January.

There was no specific mention of any invitation on the part of Duterte for China or other foreign governments to enter Philippine waters in the joint statement of Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of the Philippine leader’s state visit to China in October 2016.

UP law professor Jay Batongbacal said there is already a scientific journal available online containing details of samples obtained by the Chinese ship.

It remains to be proven, however, if these were collected in the Philippines’ continental shelf because the ship apparently went in and out of the country’s territorial waters several times over 3 months.

DFA excluded

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier expressed alarm over the presence of the Chinese survey ship, saying it might have conducted research in the seabed rich in resources.

This prompted the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue a statement, recognizing the Philippines’ sovereign rights over Benham Rise, which was officially declared by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2012.

Duterte, in response, first expressed confusion over Benham Rise and the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) before admitting he was already informed of the ship’s presence beforehand. He also expressed confidence that China would not claim Benham Rise. (READ: Duterte briefed on Benham Rise)

In all of this, the DFA was kept out of the loop.

Esperon, echoing Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, said that Duterte,  as chief architect of foreign policy, does not need to inform his subordinates about all his decisions.

“The DFA and DND are departments under the President. Are you telling me everything the President does, he has to inform the department?” he asked.

Losing his cool, Esperon told reporters: “Sino nagre-raise niyan? Baka kayo (Who’s raising that? Maybe you).”

The DFA sent a note verbale to China, seeking clarification on the 3-month activity of its ship in Benham Rise. Beijing responded by saying it was only exercising its right to freedom of navigation.

While Esperon said proper protocols should have been observed in the case of the Chinese ship, he downplayed fears of a security risk.

“Yes, yes, it’s a concern that’s why there’s [a] mechanism pero ‘wag kayo mabahala diyan (but there’s no need to worry in that regard). What is really so harmful with having a research ship [there]? In fact we should be joining them. By provisions of UNCLOS, we should be putting our people there,” he said.

Esperon, a former Armed Forces chief, just reiterated that the Philippines should strengthen its capabilities. At present, the government can track the presence of ships but it has no way of determining actions at sea. (READ: PH puzzled by presence of drone in Benham Rise) – Rappler.com

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com