When President Rodrigo Duterte apparently mistook Benham Rise for the West Philippine Sea in one of his long-winded press conferences, we thought his confusion – though alarming – was just one of those we’d gotten used to.
It’s not the first time, after all, that the shoot-from-the-hip President confused the media with bold or incoherent statements on even the most sensitive issues.
It turns out, however, that he’s more than confused about the matter.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier exposed China’s incursions into Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare area – bigger than Luzon island – that the United Nations declared back in 2012 to be part of the Philippines' continental shelf. Chinese ships conducted surveillance in the area for 3 months last year, and they did not seem to be innocent activities, said the defense chief.
Days later, the President came to China’s defense and insisted that the Asian giant did no wrong. He said he had agreed to allow Chinese ships into Philippine waters surrounding Benham Rise. “We were advised way ahead,” the President said. It's nitpicking, he added.
Imagine Lorenzana’s shock, for he certainly didn’t know. Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo was just as clueless.
The tragedy didn’t stop there. Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo explained the episode this way: the President did not have to inform his foreign secretary about the supposed agreement with China.
Here lies the core of the problem – this pattern of highly personalistic and parochial dealings of the President with China. This has been at the expense of longstanding processes, protocol and practice.
In a world of diplomacy and in this age of disruption, this approach reflects short-sightedness and laziness to think beyond the moment.
Filipinos could forgive the President for mistaking an underwater plateau near Aurora to be disputed territory. But they would take it against him if he treats Benham Rise like some islet off Davao that his friends from China could visit for "research" purposes after singing along with him at his favorite After Dark bar.
Benham Rise is ours. China is not even claiming it. And so we need to know exactly why are they suddenly interested in it.
The President has no business granting them "research" access without a full understanding of what that decision means. – Rappler.com