“What, human rights?” President Rodrigo Duterte thought he heard when the reporter was actually asking about “Benham Rise”, the 13-million-hectate territory in the Pacific Ocean that belongs to the Philippines.
“Ah, Benham,” Duterte said after it was repeated, perhaps relieved a little that his alleged links to killings have been set aside for a moment. He was asked to comment on China’s statement that the Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise as its own territory.
Perhaps Duterte was tired because it was an hour and 30 minutes into the press conference Monday night, March 12, when he was asked about the new flashpoint between Manila and Beijing. But what would follow is a familiar 4-minute recital of his usual litany on the foolishness of pressing the country’s victory in the arbitral ruling, which actually covers the West Philippine Sea and not Benham Rise.
It was the first indication that Duterte was confused.
Duterte said he understood why China would question the Philippine’s claim over Benham Rise. “Because they are claiming it, so I can understand. You cannot also claim that because I’m claiming it. But let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time. Things are going great for my country,” Duterte said.
To be sure, China is not claiming Benham Rise. Not yet, anyway. But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said security officials are worried because a Chinese survey ship was spotted criss-crossing the underwater plateau for a period of up to 3 months last year. He suspects the Chinese were surveying the seabed that is believed to be rich in minerals and gas.
It was the first instance that another country showed interest in the underwater plateau that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) awarded to the Philippines in 2012. Benham Rise is not disputed. In fact, no other country claimed the territory that is believed to be rich in minerals and gas.
The Philippines will send military patrols and survey vessels to a large underwater land mass in the Pacific Ocean to assert its rights over the area after Chinese ships were spotted there.
The vessels will travel to Benham Rise, 250km off the Philippines’ northeastern coast, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced on Tuesday.
“We will send our patrols and then we will study what we can put there to exploit also the resources,” Lorenzana told reporters.
“We will continue to study what will be the best way to develop that area for our needs. We are entitled to all the economic benefits of Benham Rise,” he added.
Meanwhile, Beijing clarified that it fully respects the Philippines’ rights over the continental shelf in Benham Rise following reports about Chinese survey ships cruising near the region.
“I wish to reiterate that China fully respects the Philippines’ rights over the continental shelf in the ‘Benham Rise’ and there is no such thing of China challenging those rights,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a press briefing Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had described China’s latest move as “very concerning” and ordered the Navy to drive away the service ship.
President Rodrigo Duterte, on the other hand, said that those were just research vessels and have not intruded the country’s territorial waters.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry welcomed the remarks of Duterte and stressed that China and the Philippines had a “friend exchange of views” on the matter.
Hua stressed that under international law, China can enjoy freedom of navigation in the region.