Philippine Officials had asked China to explain the presence of a Chinese vessel cruising the waters of Benham Rise, a territory awarded and recognized by the United Nations as part of the Philippines’ national territory.
Beijing responded saying that it was only exercising its right of free navigation and that the Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise despite being included in the country’s 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Benham Rise, an undersea region that has been estimated to be the size of Luzon, Samar and Leyte combined, was awarded to the Philippines by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2012.
“. . . it does not mean that the Philippines can take it as its own territory,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a recent statement.
China insisted that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that “a coastal state’s rights over the continental shelf does not affect the legal status of the superjacent waters or of the air space above those waters. They also do not affect foreign ships’ freedom of navigation in the coastal state’s EEZ and on the high seas, nor their innocent passage through the coastal state’s territorial sea as supported by international law.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang noted that even though the UN Commission had approved the Philippines’ submission to claim Benham Rise as part of its extended continental shelf in 2009, this does not mean that it is part of the Philippines’ national territory.
He also confirmed that there were Chinese vessels that sailed across the waters northeast of Luzon for marine research last year.
“The remarks of some individuals from the Philippines are not consistent with the facts,” Geng said in a press briefing last Friday.
“It is hoped that individuals of the Philippines will stop playing up the false information and do more to promote mutual trust,” he added.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had issued a directive to the Philippine Navy to take action in driving away any Chinese vessels seen in the territory. He also said that he finds China’s latest move “very worrying”.
Experts, such as International Law Professor, Julian Ku of Hofstra University said that the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response to the issue is confusing and troubling.
In a statement on Twitter, he said, “Actually, that’s what it means. UNCLOS Art. 76(8) makes those [Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf] recommendations ‘final and binding’ if [the Philippines] accepts (it did)”.
“Paragraph 1, Article 77 of the UNCLOS declares that a state has sovereign rights over its continental shelf for the purpose of “exploring it and exploiting its natural resources.”
“The rights referred to in paragraph 1 are exclusive in the sense that if the coastal state does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources, no one may undertake these activities without the express consent of the coastal state,” the UNCLOS asserts.