Gov't admits China surveyed Benham Rise without permit
MANILA, Philippines – National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) admitted on Monday, February 26, that Chinese survey ships have a record of illegal entry in Benham Rise.
This came up during the Senate science and technology committee hearing on exploration of Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare underwater plateau off the eastern coast of northern Luzon.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, committee chairman, expressed alarm over reports of Chinese ships surveying the area without permit from the Philippine government.
“I don’t think we will be as concerned in the eastern side if there were no infraction on the western side, but there are competing intersts in western side, that’s why medyo nakakabahala itong eastern side (the eastern side is a bit alarming),” Aquino said.
He cited the repeated unauthorized researches conducted by the Institute of Oceanology Chinese Academy of Sciences (IOCAS) and asked the DFA if they have raised the issue with China.
DFA Assistant Secretary Lourdes Yparraguirre said they have discussed the issue during the bilateral consultation mechanism between the Philippines and China last February 13.
“That was raised. The conclusion was, from the Philippine side, we stress henceforth, all MSRs (marine science research) should have consent of the Philippines,” she said.
Asked for China’s reaction, Yparraguirre said: “Yes they didn’t object at all.”
But when Aquino further clarified if China admitted entering Philippine territory without the necessary permits, she only said:
“I guess Secretary [Alan Peter] Cayetano or the chair of the Philippine delegation during the bilateral consultation mechanism would be very pleased to sit down with you and discuss it during an executive session “
First research in 2004
Esperon, for his part, said a Chinese ship illegally surveyed Benham Rise in 2004. He, however, said the government did not know it at the time due to lack of capabilities.
In fact, he said, this unauthorized 2004 research was even used by China to back its request to officially rename 5 underwater features in the Philippine Rise.
“For one, [they] conducted MSR in 2004. It did not go through the process, they had no permits. That ship, as a result, they filed for naming of names, this is now those they filed in May 2016,” Esperon said.
Esperon said he is “concerned” by the development but admitted they do not have sufficient capabilities to address it.
“We are very much concerned but if we look at the resources that we have…we have sufficient but limited capabilities. Ganun din Northern Luzon Command," he said.
Rear Admiral Erick Kagaoan, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of naval staff, said the Philippine Navy has monitored foreign ships with no diplomatic clearance, but did not divulge the countries.
Kagaoan also said that they have monitored unauthorized ships that were anchored while on Philippine waters. It was also not clear if all were involved in marine science research.
“Yes there are situations we monitored those kinds of ship,” he said, when asked by Aquino.
Aquino further asked him about the number of ships they monitored but Kagaoan only said “not that many.”
The senator asked if the number is closer to 5 or 50. He responded “[closer to] 5.”
In 2017, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana raised concern after a Chinese survey ship was spotted crisscrossing the underwater plateau for a period of up to 3 months.
Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal said it was found that the ship was surveying, not Benham Rise, but the east of Surigao province – which he said was worse because it was closer to the Philippine coast.
“After some digging, we found out they did not do research, but that’s the good news. But they did research on Philippine EEZ, east of Sigurao. It’s worse, it’s even closer,” Batongbacal said.
Esperon, too, acknowledged that this was done without permit.
“Meron noon, isang research ship… natatandaan ko ung controversy dyan mga April last year, kaya pinangalanan na nating Philippine Rise, kaya nagalit tayo,” he said.
(There was this one time, a research ship... I remember the controversy over that around April last year, that's why we named the area Philippine Rise, because we got angry.)
Aside from that, Esperon said there have been ships spotted, which initially look like they are just exercising their freedom of navigation.
Asked by Rappler if he really believes that, Esperon only said:
“Merong mga Chinese ships. Gumagalaw na paganun-ganun (left, right, left, right) na mabagal, ano ibig sabihin noon? Freedom of navigation?... Ikaw naniniwala? Matagal na kong pinanganak."
(There are Chinese ships, going to and fro slowly, what does that mean? Freedom of naviagtion? Do you believe that? I wasn't born yesterday.)
The ship stayed in the region starting November 2016, after President Rodrigo Duterte's visit to China, and left in January.
Violations of permission
In January 2018, the Philippine government allowed a Chinese ship to survey the eastern seaboard, including Benham Rise. But China has supposedly violated this permission.
Batongbacal cited 3 violations. First, the permit states that there would be a team from the Philippines to join the study.
During the hearing, it was revealed that there were only Philippine representatives onboard in 3 out of of 6 days of the survey inside the country’s exclusive economic zone. There were also problems with the availability of experts from the University of the Philippines' Marine Science Institute.
Second, Batongbacal said the Chinese vessel came earlier than indicated in the permit.
Lastly, the ship supposedly turned off its Automatic Identification System (AIS), which serves as a tracker.
“Based on the track of the vessel they came earlier than indicated, so they did the research earlier than what they said. Pangatlo, apparently may gaps 'yung AIS. There were times na tinurn off nila yun so 'di mo alam kung nasan sila. So merong non-compliance,” he said.
(Thirdly, apparently there were gaps in the AIS. There were times that they turned it off so you did not know where they were. So there was non-compliance.)
Aquino said the committee would set another hearing on the issue. – Rappler.com