Benham Rise: PH's new territory off Aurora

MANILA, Philippines – Imagine an area bigger than the Philippines' biggest island, Luzon, that potentially contains steel-producing minerals and natural gas for domestic consumption or exportation.

This is Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare area off the coast of Aurora province, which the United Nations (UN) recently confirmed as part of the Philippines' continental shelf and territory. (READ: Filipinos conquer new territory: Benham Rise)

“We own Benham Rise now,” Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said in a media interview, quoted in a Philippine Daily Inquirer story Saturday, April 28. “This is for future Filipinos.” 

Unlike Scarborough Shoal and other portions of the South China Sea, no other country claims the area that is almost a quarter bigger than the 10.5-million hectare Luzon.

The UN approval means Benham Rise, an underwater plateau by definition, is an extension of the Philippines' continental shelf, an area rich in living and non-living resources like minerals and gas.

Based on the UN 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.” Parts of the continental shelf that are not covered by the 200 NM provision, according to UNCLOS, need to be claimed and defended before the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS).

The UNCLCS approved Benham Rise as the Philippines' extended continental shelf 3 years after the country filed a claim and defended it before the UN commission. (The UNCLCS was formed under UNCLOS.)

CONTINENTAL SHELF. This is a diagram of a continental shelf in its classical definition. UP's Jay Batongbacal, however, says Benham Rise is different because it is an independent feature, an underwater plateau, attached to the normal continental shelf. Screen grab from 'Continental Shelf: The Last Maritime Zone,' www.unep.org

CONTINENTAL SHELF. This is a diagram of a continental shelf in its classical definition. UP's Jay Batongbacal, however, says Benham Rise is different because it is an independent feature, an underwater plateau, attached to the normal continental shelf. Screen grab from 'Continental Shelf: The Last Maritime Zone,' www.unep.

org

It is now up to the Philippines to enact a law or executive order establishing the boundaries of its continental shelf, marine law expert Jay Batongbacal told Rappler.

More resources

With this, he said, the Philippines can explore and exploit resources in a bigger area of seabed.

“The larger your shelf, the larger your potential resources are,” explained Batongbacal, a University of the Philippines professor who took part in the technical team that prepared and defended the Philippines' claim over Benham Rise.

Batongbacal said based on two initial samplings in the area, Benham Rise keeps a large amount of heavy metals like manganese, whose accumulation into manganese nodules can help in the production of steel, among other things.

Considering the area is a seabed, which is known to contain gas hydrates, Benham Rise is also potentially a rich source of natural gas, he said.

He noted, however, that Benham Rise – which is 2,000 to 5,000 meters deep – “has not really been explored.”

In an earlier interview, Paje trumpeted the region's oil-rich potential. “We've been saying this in the past. This country can provide for its own energy,” the secretary said. 

He added it can also open opportunities for the Philippines to export natural gas.

FIRST VICTORY. This is the Philippines' first victory for territorial claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Screen grab from a document the Philippines submitted to UN

FIRST VICTORY. This is the Philippines' first victory for territorial claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Screen grab from a document the Philippines submitted to UN

First for PH

This is the Philippines' first successful validation of a territorial claim under UNCLOS, according to a paper on Benham Rise prepared by parties privy to the claim.

UNCLOS, incidentally, is the same UN convention the Philippines is invoking in its ongoing dispute with China over Scarborough Shoal. (Read: Scarborough Shoal according to Manila, Beijing.)  

Regarding Scarborough Shoal, China has repeatedly rejected the Philippines' invitation to bring the two countries' dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, another body formed under UNCLOS.  

Batongbacal, for his part, sees hope in the recent UN approval. (Below is the information the Philippines submitted to the UN in claiming Benham Rise.)

“In terms of demonstrating our country's capability to make and prove claims to areas under international law, this is positive proof that we can do it, given the right people, resources, and adequate preparation and time,” Batongbacal said. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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