Christina Mendez (The Philippine Star) - February 7, 2018 - 12:00am
MANILA, Philippines — Just after the Chinese had completed their “scientific research” in Benham Rise or Philippine Rise, President Duterte ordered similar foreign endeavors in the area stopped and for new ones to secure permit from the national security adviser.
“Let’s put it this way: he has caused the revocation of all licenses given to foreign entities to conduct scientific research in the Philippine Rise,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a press briefing yesterday.
“Henceforth, all foreign companies that wish to conduct such scientific research must apply to the inter-agency and must get approval from the national security adviser. But all existing licenses are deemed revoked,” he said.
He also confirmed that Chinese ship Ke Xue Hao had concluded its scientific research in the area. Administration foes and some legal experts had questioned the granting of permit to the Chinese “research” mission in Benham Rise.
Roque added the President had expressed desire that only Filipino researchers be allowed to operate in the area, which is part of the country’s exclusive economic zone as provided for under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“I think it’s just the fact that where there is a dispute, then let us explore joint exploration, joint scientific researches. But where there is no dispute, then for now, let’s limit it to Filipinos,” Roque said.
In the case of the West Philippine Sea, the President’s position has been less assertive. He has not spoken against the Chinese continued militarization of artificial islands they had built over land features clearly within Philippine territory.
“The Chinese concluded their research. And that’s why the President now has said with everyone having concluded the research, we will now limit it to Filipinos… the conduct of research will now be limited to Filipinos,” Roque maintained.
“Now, it’s not an absolute rule. He said that henceforth, all those who want to conduct research in Philippine Rise must in addition get the permission of the National Security Adviser, Secretary Esperon,” he added.
Duterte also reiterated that the Philippines has the exclusive rights over the Philippine Rise.
“He just said ‘because our sovereign rights in Benham—in Philippine Rise is unquestioned we do not need to share it with anyone as of now’,” Roque said.
“He came up anyway with an assessment that as of now everything is preliminary and he even joked, ‘We have enough fish for the time being. We don’t need foreigners to assist us in getting our fish in the Philippine Rise’,” the spokesman said.
Clearance from Esperon would be separate from permit from an inter-agency technical working group, he said.
Since 2000, Roque said 13 research studies have been allowed in Benham Rise, mostly from the United States, South Korea and Germany. Only two of China’s 13 applications had been allowed, officials said.
Earlier yesterday, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said President Duterte has ordered a stop to all marine explorations and studies by foreign scientists and directed the Philippine Navy to chase out any vessel fishing or conducting researches in the Philippine Rise.
“The President directed the Department of National Defense to deploy Navy vessels and the Philippine Air Force to conduct fly overs in the area to check on the presence of foreign vessels,” Piñol said.
The Philippine Rise was designated as an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Marine Area by 196 countries during the 13th Meeting of the Convention of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity in Mexico in December 2016.
The undersea region east of Luzon is located off the provinces of Aurora and Isabela and is duly recognized by the United Nations in 2012 as the newest Philippine territory under the UNCLOS.
Sound plan needed
Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino IV welcomed President Duterte’s order but stressed the government should come up with a sound plan for exploring the 13-million-hectare underwater plateau.
“The President’s pronouncement is a welcome development. Now we must determine our policy and plans for Benham Rise,” Aquino said in a statement.
Despite Duterte’s pronouncement, the senator said he plans to get inputs and updates from Filipino scientists regarding their ongoing research and exploration in Benham Rise.
“In a Senate hearing, our scientists and experts will have the opportunity to present their current findings and plans to study and develop the Philippine rise,” he said.
“Let’s support our local scientists in their exploration missions and provide them with the resources they need,” he said.
Opposition congressmen, meanwhile, urged the Duterte administration to confiscate all data gathered by the Chinese in their research in Benham Rise.
“If it is true that President Duterte stopped all scientific studies being conducted by foreigners in the Philippine Rise, then for security and developmental reasons, all data so far gathered must be confiscated by or turned over to the Philippine government to preclude their unauthorized use by foreigners,” Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said.
It was Lagman’s opposition colleague Rep. Gary Alejano of Magdalo who blew the whistle on the government’s approval of China’s request for research in Benham Rise.
Alejano said the supposed order of Duterte stopping all studies in Benham Rise did not mean anything “because the Chinese have already left the area two days ago.”
“They have already accomplished their mission, and as far as I know, the Chinese are the only ones doing research there because they want to occupy that area after completing the annexation of 80 percent of our exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said Chinese researchers “should be compelled by the Philippine government to turn over their findings to their Filipino counterparts who can use the data for the benefit of our country.”
“China has been conducting studies in Benham Rise for weeks now and they certainly have gathered data on our marine and natural resources in Benham Rise,” he said.
He said during the Arroyo administration, China did not share with the Philippine government data it gathered in the West Philippine Sea under a joint maritime seismic undertaking (JMSU).
For his part, Ifugao Rep. Teodoro Baguilat Jr. said, “China has long proven that it cannot be trusted. It has consistently violated our territory while the government turns a blind eye to these incursions in exchange for Chinese loans.”
“So we join the call of our colleagues to disclose in full the loan terms of any Chinese funds that are supposed to be used for the build-build-build campaign. They simply cannot be trusted. And it also boggles the mind why we will embrace Chinese loans and yet shun aid and grants that are conditioned simply on human rights and rule of law,” he said.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), meanwhile, is allocating nearly a billion pesos for the exploration of the Philippine Rise for possible natural gas and other marine and resources.
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said the department has put in place all the necessary requirements to begin exploring the 13-million hectare continental shelf east of Luzon as the government announced that it would prioritize Filipino researchers.
“We will join whatever mission there is. We have already in place a group of marine biologists and geoscience experts that can conduct mission in the interest of the DENR,” Cimatu said in a briefing yesterday. “We have the capability to do it.” Last year, the DENR started survey mapping in the area.