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Duterte shows alarming confusion over Benham Rise

UNDERWATER PLATEAU. Found near Aurora, the 13-million-hectare Benham Rise is part of the Philippines' continental shelf.

Screenshot from a document the Philippines submitted to the UN

"What, human rights?" President Rodrigo Duterte thought he heard when the reporter was actually asking about "Benham Rise," the 13-million-hectate underwater plateau in the Pacific Ocean that belongs to the Philippines.

"Ah, Benham," Duterte said after it was repeated, perhaps relieved a little that his alleged links to killings have been set aside for a moment. He was asked to comment on China's statement that the Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise as its own territory.

Perhaps Duterte was tired because it was an hour and 30 minutes into the press conference Monday night, March 12, when he was asked about the new flashpoint between Manila and Beijing. But what would follow is a familiar 4-minute recital of his usual litany on the foolishness of pressing the country's victory in the arbitral ruling, which actually covers the West Philippine Sea and not Benham Rise. 

It was the first indication that Duterte was confused. 

Duterte said he understood why China would question the Philippine's claim over Benham Rise. "Because they are claiming it, so I can undertand. You cannot also claim that because I'm claiming it. But let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time. Things are going great for my country," Duterte said. 

To be sure, China is not claiming Benham Rise. Not yet, anyway. But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said security officials are worried because a Chinese survey ship was spotted criss-crossing the underwater plateau for a period of up to 3 months last year. He suspects the Chinese were surveying the seabed that is believed to be rich in minerals and gas. 

It was the first instance that another country showed interest in the underwater plateau that the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) awarded to the Philippines in 2012. Benham Rise is not disputed. In fact, the Philippines was the only claimant.

Different from West Philippine Sea

Sensing that the President was confused, the reporter explained that Benham Rise is different from the West Philippine Sea, and is not part of the arbitration ruling. 

"My orders to my military is: You go there and tell them that this is ours but I say it in friendship," Duterte replied. 

But what if China builds on Benham Rise? At this point, there was no question Duterte was talking about the West Philippines Sea all along. Or that he doesn't appreciate the difference between the two maritime territories. 

Duterte expressed confidence that the Chinese will not build structures but will perhaps cause some tension in the area to respond to the US which, he said, "wants to pick a fight there." The US has sent its warships and aircraft carriers to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to counter the aggression of China, but has not been known to have suspiciously deployed its vessels to Benham Rise. 

"The Americans naman, maghintay na tayo maggulo. Bakit ako maggulo doon. (The Americans will wait for us to cause trouble there. Why should I cause trouble?) I cannot match the might of China," Duterte said before showing how he was impressed by China's recent display of its counter-terrorism form.

Responding to Lorenzana's concerns, China said the Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise to be its own territory. China said it was "exercising navigation freedoms and the right to innocent passage only, without conducting any other activities or operations."

China was playing legalese word games, as Filipino expert on China Jay Batongbacal explained in his Facebook post. 

Sovereign rights

It is true the Philippines doesn't own Benham Rise in the way that it has "sovereignty" over a landmass like Metro Manila, for example, where the country can control who can enter the territory. 

The UNCLCS awarded Philippines "sovereign rights" over Benham Rise. Batongbacal explained: "'Sovereign rights may not be the same as full 'sovereignty', and people usually confuse these two terms. It is like confusing a person’s rights over property he holds under lease, and rights to property he holds as a full owner. But the fact that the former is of a different status than the other does not make them any less enforceable under law," said Batongbacal.

Indeed, a Chinese vessel can pass through Benham Rise based on freedom of navigation. It is the same right that allows US vessels to sail through the South China Sea. But what is important to highlight is the Philippines is the only country that may develop resources in the area.

Lorenzana pointed out that China wasn't merely exercising freedom of navigation because the survey ship was spotted criss-crossing the area for a period of 3 months. (READ: Lorenzana eyes structures in Benham Rise amid China's interest)

"Alam mo naman 'yung innocent passage, Point A to Point B. Napakabagal eh. Tapos tumitigil sa isang lugar. Magtagal doon ng ilang araw. Lipat naman sa kabilang lugar. So that is not innocent passage," he said.

(We know innocent passage, it's Point A to Point B. But the Chinese ship was very slow. It was stopping in one area to stay there for a few days. And then it would transfer to another area. So that is not innocent passage.)

Lorenzana argued the Philippines must protest these kinds of activities or otherwise risk a situation where the military superpower would encroach with impunity.

And this why Duterte cannot afford to confuse Benham Rise with the West Philippine Sea because his role to defend the Benham Rise is crucial.

Batongbacal argued: "This may not be about full and absolute sovereignty over Benham Rise, but it is definitely about the Philippines’ exclusive sovereign rights under international law. The fact that it is not an issue of sovereignty over territory like land does not make it any less important: it is still about the Filipinos’ maritime heritage, and the resources of their future generations."

Duterte can lament that the problem in the West Philippine Sea was something he inherited and was never his fault. Benham Rise, however, is a new problem for his administration to face. Whether or not the country can defend the country's rights to it is all up to him at this point. – Rappler.com