MANILA—Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian on Friday said it is clear that China respects Philippine sovereign rights in the Benham Rise but the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) issue is another story.
Gatchalian made this statement in a TV interview noting that the two issues should be “decoupled.”
“I think the issue in the West Philippine Sea is really (just) the issue of West Philippine Sea. BR (Benham Rise) clearly as China stated, they respect our sovereign rights in the area,” Gatchalian said.
“…We’re also doing business with China and that should also be decoupled in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
To recall, the Department of National Defense (DND) said a Chinese survey ship was seen plying Benham Rise for around three months last year.
However, Chinese Embassy maintained that they merely passed by waters noting that they had the right of freedom of navigation.
Gatchalian said that at present, it is still difficult to conclude what the Chinese ship was doing because of the lack of information and technology to monitor ships’ activities.
He also said that he believed that the presence of the ship “is consistent to what the Chinese government said that they are exercising the freedom of navigation.”
“As what to our National Security Adviser (Hermogenes Esperon Jr.) demonstrated, it is exercising freedom of navigation in that area,” Gatchalian said referring to Esperon’s statement during a Senate hearing on Wednesday.
“…The information is also incomplete because it did stay there for quite some time and it did crisscross, so it was probably conducting some form of research. But, if it is conducting very basically for example; water salinity, temperature, I think that is allowed under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). That is the only information that we have,” he added.
The neophyte senator, meanwhile, said that it is about time to call for joint explorations with other countries and is willing to have the Philippines forge an agreement on research of development of the Benham Rise.
“Countries like Korea, Japan and even China (are) investing in this type of research, because research really brings in knowledge and value. So if you can merge their equipment and our talent then we can jointly conduct exploration in that area,” he added.
As for the West Philippine Sea issue, Gatchalian said that the Philippines should just continue enforcing the arbitral ruling.
”We should be consistent in terms of filing protest for whatever is happening in that area. We should use that ruling to our advantage,” Gatchalian said.
The senator, an ally of the Pres. Rodrigo Duterte, said that he was quite pleased to hear from the President that “he has not forgotten about this ruling and he will enforce ruling at one point in time.“
“Foreign policy is about balancing. You have to think about the balance between external interests as well as national development and that’s a very difficult balance. It’s easier said than done. Our Chief-Executive should exercise caution and prudence when doing that foreign policy balance,” Gatchalian said.
He said that for a small country like the Philippines and for most small countries, it is the “only logical strategy.”
The senator said that this did not mean that the Philippines is “weak” but reminded of the Philippines’ bilateral agreements with China.
”I think for now, what we can effectively do is do the judicial process and enforce the arbitral ruling in this area. I think that’s the most that we can do for now,” Gatchalian said.
”I’m not saying we will not have that capability in the future but we can use what we have right now which is the arbitrary ruling that we got from the International Court,” he added.