MANILA–To prevent another Chinese incursion in the Benham Rise, a senator on Sunday called on the Executive Department to craft a comprehensive strategy aimed at protecting the 13-million-hectare underwater plateau.
Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto made the statement following reports that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has sent a note verbale to the Chinese Embassy to clarify the reported presence of a Chinese survey ship near Benham Rise.
The Department of National Defense (DND) also reported the Chinese survey ship was seen plying the waters of Benham Rise for around three months last year.
Chinese Embassy, however, denied that it intentionally sailed to Benham Rise and simply passed by international sea noting that they had the right of freedom of navigation.
Recto said that without a protection strategy, the Benham Rise may easily “fall prey” not only to poachers but foreign countries interested in exploring the plateau’s marine and mineral resources.
“No ifs or buts. The government must have a ‘Benham Rise Protection Strategy’. A comprehensive strategy – military, diplomatic, economic – in holding on to and developing Benham Rise,” Recto said.
“We have practically lost the seas west and north of us. We cannot be encircled. The Eastern side of the country should be defended as well,” he added.
He, however, said that he was not referring to just “one country.”
“I am not singling out China. But this goes out to all countries who might be tempted by the riches underneath the Benham Rise,” Recto said.
The senator said the government should also focus its attention not only on Benham Rise, but other areas on the Pacific side of the country.
He noted that the Benham Rise is also believed to be a rich source of manganese and natural gas aside from its diverse marine life.
“The Pacific side has always been the unattended portion of our archipelago. There are many places there that are underdeveloped. It is time for us to pivot,” he further said.
He stressed that the Philippine government should not be caught “unware.”
“We should not allow that area to be partitioned like a frontier homestead. Or cut up into blocks to be controlled and exploited by others,” Recto said.
Recto also urged the Senate to should consider expediting a bill filed by Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara providing for the creation of a Benham Rise Development Authority – the lead agency that will be mandated to conduct scientific research and exploration in the plateau.
Under Angara’s measure, BRDA is meant to take the lead in formulating and implementing a development roadmap for Benham Rise, ensuring that it is aligned with the Philippine Development Plan.
On Saturday, neophyte Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian urged the government to take “immediate action” to defend exclusive sovereignty over the Benham Rise to ensure that its potential will be developed and utilized to benefit the Filipino people.
He said that the country is only beginning to discover the true potential of the Benham Rise to contribute to the Philippines’ ecological and economic prospects.
Benham Rise is a 13 million-hectare underwater landmass that is about 250 kilometers off the coastline of Aurora province.
It officially became part of the Philippines in 2012 when the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf ruled that the Benham Rise area was fell under its exclusive economic zone.