MANILA—National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. on Wednesday said that there was no threat from other nations on the sovereignty of the Philippines over the Benham Rise.
In a Senate panel hearing on the creation of a proposed Benham Rise Development Authority (BRDA), Esperon said that although he did not see current threats, he did not rule out possible threats in the future.
“There could be (potential threats) but we don’t see any right now. Pronouncements of the Foreign Affairs of China are saying that they recognize our sovereign rights over Benham Rise,” Esperon told Sen. Sherwin Gatchlian, chair of the Senate Committee on Economic Affairs.
To recall, the Department of National Defense (DND) previously 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.
Esperon said that at present, the government could not determine if the Chinese research ship conducted researches in the seabed. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has already sent a note verbale to China.
Esperon explained that China had the right to pass through Philippine waters but only in the name of freedom of navigation and innocent passage which he defined as “passing from your point of origin to your point of destination by the safest means or route.”
Although supportive of the proposal to create a BRDA, he said that first and foremost, the government should know “what we really have in the area.”
”…The first priority should be organizing maritime, scientific researches in the area. Since we do not know yet what is in the area. Let us strengthen our research capabilities,” Esperon said.
He meanwhile suggested the creation of a Department of Maritime Resources and Ocean Affairs to have a single body to tackle these issues.
DFA Acting Executive Director and OIC Maria Lourdes Montero also denied that there was a breach in protocol that took place.
She revealed that the request of China to conduct scientific research in Benham Rise in 2015 was rejected.
“On the recent movement of Chinese vessels, we are not sure as to the conduct of activities there. We do not have the actual details. At this point, given that we don’t have the exact information, I would not be in the position to say that a breach has actually occurred,” Montero said.
“If I may say, ‘breach’ may be a strong word because we don’t have the complete details. We would like to note that the ocean is quite vast, it’s divided in different zones…they can exercise such as freedom of navigation or innocent passage,” she added.
Montero said that one recommendation she could give to improve process of the Philippines in undertaking research in the area is to build the capacity of the DFA’s technical agencies.
”…We have very good scientists, we have very good technical people but they share a common experience with respect for the need for resources, equipment, training and additional personnel. We do rely a lot on our technical agencies. Our recommendation is really to somehow strengthen our technical agencies,” Montero said.
The 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.