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US, Japan, South Korea join bids for Benham Rise study

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THE Philippine government approved the applications of 26 research firms from the United States, Japan and South Korea to conduct scientific research in Benham rise or Philippine Rise, contradicting allegations the Duterte administration favors China to explore the disputed sea bed, an extension of the Philippines’ continental shelf, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said.

In a statement, Roque also clarified he never said Filipinos ccould not conduct research in Benham Rise nor had the capability to do so, saying there were fixed guidelines to follow and, so far, China, for the moment qualified. 

Roque’s remarks, made on Tuesday during a regular Palace news briefing, drew widespread condemnation, saying it was “completely wrong,” “based on ignorance,” and a “serious disservice” to Filipinos for the Palace to follow Beijing’s line. 

In a statement sent to reporters on Thursday, Jan. 25, he asked the public to understand the “entirety” of his remarks on Benham Rise.

“I was referring to China when I said ‘no one has applied and no one can do it, because, apparently, it’s capital-intensive.’  Earlier, I responded, and I quote, ‘Because only China has qualified so far. There are other applicants, unfortunately they did not qualify according to fixed guidelines already set by the government’,” he said.

Filipinos, Roque said, were free to do research in the Philippine Rise since the country has sovereign rights in the area.

“It is obvious that my statement pertains to China and not the Philippines. As Filipinos, we do not need consent to conduct scientific investigation in Benham Rise because it is subject to our sovereign rights which includes the right to conduct scientific research,” Roque said.

“To reiterate, I never said that Filipinos cannot conduct research in Benham rise. On the contrary, only Filipinos can do so even without express consent of our state.”

Even while in New Delhi, Roque had called on some reporters in Manila just to “clarify” his remarks that it was “obvious” that he was referring to the Chinese, and not Filipinos. 

Roque, during Tuesday’s news briefing, was asked why Filipinos could not conduct marine research on their own in the Philippine Rise.

In response, he said Filipinos could not do a research on their own in the continental shelf off eastern Luzon because the endeavor was “capital intensive.”

Roque also on Monday claimed the Philippines had sovereign rights, but not sovereignty over Benham Rise–after the Chinese Foreign Ministry countered an earlier position made by the Philippine government. 

In his attempts to temper the criticisms for allowing China to explore Benham Rise, Roque echoed claims by the Foreign Affairs Department that President Duterte had approved 13 applications from the US, nine from Japan, and four from South Korea.

“Request applications to conduct research by the United States, Japan and South Korea have likewise been approved.  This hopefully puts to rest the issue that the current administration is favoring China in (sic) the issue of Benham Rise,” Roque said. 

The Philippines’ claim to Benham Rise, a massive 13-million-hectare area east of Luzon island, was approved by the United Nations back in 2012.

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said China submitted 18 applications for marine exploration in Benham Rise, but only two were approved.

Roque, who drew flak for saying that conducting a research in the undersea region is “capital expensive,” also explained he was not referring to Filipinos as there were other applicants who were not qualified.

Meanwhjile, Sen. Nancy Binay called on the Department of Foreign Affairs to disclose the details of the permit given to Chinese oceanographers to conduct scientific research in Benham Rise.

Binay made the call in the light of the tight-lipped alleged approval by the DFA on the request of the Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences for a marine scientific research in the 13 million-hectare underwater plateau off Aurora province.

In the interest of transparency, she said it would be best for the DFA to share with the public the extent of the study, research and exploration of China in Benham Rise.

“And since it is the DFA which approves or disapproves scientific researches in both the West and East Philippine Seas, it is only appropriate if they could provide a list of all Filipino- and foreign-led expeditions in our waters since 2010,” Binay said.

Binay noted there was nothing wrong if the DFA made a disclosure on the details of the marine research.

“It’s better to know the extent of help China will give us in the research. If it does not undermine the country’s sovereignty, then I don’t see anything wrong why the DFA cannot provide us with the details of the agreement between the Philippines and China,” Binay added.

The DFA said it has granted marine scientific research permits to Japan, US, China, Korea and Germany since 2000.

Binay said details like the location, number of vessels, offshore platforms, area and period of coverage, members of the technical team are important references since it is also the job of the Senate to review Financial and Technical Assistance Agreements entered into by the Philippine government.

Joined by the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) in the exploration, the DFA approved the request of the Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences (IO-CAS) for a marine scientific research in Benham Rise.

“While nothing legally hinders joint explorations, for years, it has always been an issue of policy whether or not government should allow foreign corporate interests or foreign governments to join the Philippines in exploring for resources,” the senator noted.

The marine research on Benham Rise can be viewed in relation to the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking tripartite agreement of the Philippines with China and Vietnam, which provided for seismic surveys to determine whether oil and gas reserves are under the Spratlys off the West Philippine Sea.

“Now, we need to be cautious and sparing in giving approval for joint explorations. We must first bear in mind the interest of the Filipino people. .. Our foreign partners should first acknowledge and recognize our territorial integrity and sovereignty over our waters–and that’s non-negotiable,” Binay pointed out.

She added that the DFA should immediately make public China’s request for a marine scientific research including the nature and objectives of the project and other important details.

While nothing legally hinders joint expeditions in the conduct of marine scientific research or any studies in the potentially resource-rich Benham Rise, Binay said Filipino scientists must co-lead explorations and not limited to foreigners.

“Many Filipino experts have been doing studies of our seas. I think they have enough capacity to do the planned research. But we recognize any supplementary technical assistance coming from foreign experts,” she noted.

Benham Rise is a 13 million-hectare underwater plateau on the country’s eastern seaboard and is seen as a potential source of oil, natural gas and other marine resources.

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