DEFENSE Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Thursday said he has ordered the Navy to send a ship to Benham Rise, an underwater landmass 250 kilometers east of Luzon, to drive away Chinese survey vessels that have been spotted there.
“I have ordered the navy that if they see [these] service ship[s] this year, to start to accost them and drive them away” from Benham Rise, Lorenzana said.
“The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed,” he said.
The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Philippines’ undisputed territorial claim to Benham Rise in 2012, finding that the region is an extension of the country’s continental shelf.
The landmass is believed to be potentially rich in mineral and natural gas deposits.
Lorenzana said the Chinese survey ships have been monitored approaching Benham Rise on several occasions over three months last year.
In February last year, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan expressed concern over a Chinese plan to conduct undersea exploration in Benham Rise.
This happened at the time when the United States stopped a Chinese attempt to build structures on the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal, Lorenzana said.
The Defense secretary said he had been informed by his US counterpart at the time that Chinese barges loaded with soil and construction materials were within the shoal in June.
“The Americans, I think, told the Chinese not to do it and for some reason the Chinese stopped,” Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana’s statement comes as President Rodrigo Duterte seeks warmer relations with Beijing, after ties soured under the previous administration because of conflicting claims in the South China Sea.
Asked why the ships might be surveying in Benham Rise, Lorenzana said he received information the vessels were “looking for a place to put submarines.”
The Philippines and China, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, have conflicting claims to the South China Sea.
China claims almost all of the vital sea lane, including the Reed Bank, which is about 148 kilometers off the Philippine island of Palawan and which Manila considers as its territory.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, had pressed the Philippines’ claims leading to tensions with China.
But Duterte, who took office last year, has focused on boosting relations with Beijing, playing down the territorial conflict while seeking financial and military aid.
Last year, as a result of his talks with Chinese President Xi Jin Ping, the Chinese Coast Guard allowed Filipino fishermen back into their traditional fishing grounds in the Scarborough Shoal, a territory claimed by the Philippines but occupied by China since 2012.
In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines in its case against China over territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
The PCA said that Filipino fishermen had traditional fishing rights in Scarborough Shoal and that China had interfered with these rights by restricting access.
After the favorable PCA decision to the Philippines, Lorenzana said he recommended the sending of navy ships to the shoal but the President stopped him.
“When the ruling was proclaimed in July, I was about to recommend to the Cabinet and the President to assert our right immediately, inform the Chinese that we’ll send our Navy, [and] drive them away from the Scarborough Shoal,” he said.
He said China has so far claimed close to about 500 hectares of land in the Spratlys. With AFP