PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Monday told Beijing that it holds ownership over Benham Rise, a mineral-rich underwater land mass 250 kilometers east of Luzon, and said he would welcome “a friendly dialogue” over the presence of Chinese ships in Philippine territory.
“My orders to my military, you go there and tell them this is ours. I say it in friendship. I cannot deprive any Filipino from claiming it,” the President said.
Duterte also defended Beijing amid assertions that they might occupy parts of the country’s continental shelf.
“They will not do it at this time. That’s just trouble,” the President said.
The United Nations confirmed Philippine ownership of Benham Rise in 2012.
While China claims almost the entire South China Sea, it has no claims over Benham Rise, which is located within Philippine waters in bodies facing the Pacific Ocean.
In a regular press briefing Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang asserted that the Philippines cannot take Benham Rise as its own territory, even as he reiterated that the reported passage of a Chinese survey ship through the Philippines territorial waters was innocent and unintentional.
“According to international law including UNCLOS [UN Convention on the Law of the Sea], a coastal state’s rights over the continental shelf do not affect the legal status of the superjacent waters or of the air space above those waters, nor do they affect foreign ships’ navigation freedom in the coastal state’s EEZ [exclusive economic zone] and on the high seas, or their innocent passage through the coastal state’s territorial sea as supported by international law,” the Chinese official said.
Duterte said he would rather not pick a fight with China as “things are going great” between the two countries.
He added that he will assert the arbitration ruling on disputed waters in the South China Sea “if things get commercialized.”
“Why would I want to fight? I’d rather talk,” he said, noting that the Philippines cannot match China’s military capacity.
“I cannot match the might of China. Have you seen how they are prepared to fight terrorism?” he said.
Since assuming the presidency last year, Duterte has sought closer ties with China, choosing to downplay the international arbitral ruling on the South China Sea favoring the Philippines, in exchange for reinvigorated economic ties.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Monday suggested the government erect a structure atop Benham Rise to assert the country’s territorial ownership over it.
Lorenzana said he was ready to accept the Chinese authorities’ explanation of their presence off Benham Rise.
“Well, they said its just an innocent passage and they have other intention there. So, we will leave is at that. We will trust what they say, but at the same time we will keep on patrolling our area and find out if they will return,” Lorenzana said.
Former National Security Adviser and Rep. Roilo Golez on Monday said that China’s survey ship sent to Benham Rise was there to spy on the Philippine territory and conduct a survey on the country’s natural resources.
“Benham Rise to me has a very big security and economic impact on the Philippines. Benham Rise is a body of water that is part of Philippine territory. This is not just exclusive economic zone [EEZ]. But this is a territorial sea as awarded to us by the United Nations on April 19, 2012 after filing [a claim] in 2009,” said Golez, during the Samahang Plaridel Kapihan sa Manila Hotel media forum.
“The entry of the survey ship is a violation of our territory. After studying the presence of a survey ship in Benham Rise, it is my belief that China is spying on our territory on Benham Rise,” Golez said.
“And considering the capability of China with respect to survey, the ship sent by China can study the characteristics of the water, the sea. Something we studied in the naval academy. They spied on our natural resources. They were there for three months. They gathered a lot of information. China sent a survey ship to spy on our natural resources and that is my belief,” said Golez.
Golez said the ship sent by China is Type 636A, which is a survey ship, capable of doing surveys on the characteristics of the sea, underwater mining, and even survey on the possibility of submarine passage in the area.
On the other hand, Golez said it was very timely that the United States has given the Philippines a research ship, the R/V Melville, now renamed BRP Gregorio Velasquez, so that the country could conduct its own survey on Benham Rise and know its natural resources.
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