THE Chinese Embassy on Saturday denied it intentionally sailed through the Benham Rise off northern Luzon, saying they simply passed by international sea.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said their ships had the right of innocent passage and freedom of navigation in those waters, and its research ships did pass through seas northeast of Luzon Island last year.
“But this is purely carrying out normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage, and there were no so-called other activities or operations,” he said after their embassy received letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The DFA sent a note verbale to the Chinese Embassy on Friday to clarify the reported incursion of Chinese ships at Benham Rise, which has been declared part of the country’s exclusive economic zone.
“The Philippines has expressed concern about the reported presence of Chinese ship in Benham Rise, which has been recognized by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as Philippine waters,” DFA Spokesman Charles Jose said.
But Geng said “comments from individuals in the Philippines on this do not accord with the facts.”
Geng was apparently referring to the remarks of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who said on Thursday Chinese ships were monitored at locations near the Philippines, with a warship spotted 70 miles off its western coast in the South China Sea and survey ships seen to the north and south of its eastern seaboard.
He said satellite imagery provided by allies had tracked Chinese vessels for three months last year in Benham Rise, a vast area the United Nations has declared to be part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
China could be trying to explore Benham Rise, Philippines’ defense chief said, in what could be another source of conflict between the Asian neighbors.
Lorenzana pointed out that satellite photos and incident reports indicate that China had sent a ship to Benham Rise.
“One of the survey ships is also plying the Benham Rise already. Last year, it was monitored for about three months,” Lorenzana was quoted as saying.
He said he had given instructions to the Navy that if the survey ship returns, “accost them and drive them away.”
Since assuming presidency last year, President Rodrigo Duterte has sought closer ties with China, choosing to downplay the arbitral ruling on the South China Sea favoring the Philippines in exchange of reinvigorated economic ties.
The country’s claim to Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare area located east of Luzon island believed to be gas-rich, was approved by the United Nations in 2012.