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Benham Rise: Media's Obligation to Report on China's Maritime Interests | CMFR

Benham Rise: Media’s Obligation to Report on China’s Maritime Interests

Screengrab from ABS-CBN’s Youtube account.


CHINA HAS taken interest in the eastern seaboard of the Philippines where the underwater plateau Benham Rise sits with its wealth of marine resources. Renamed Philippine Rise, the feature is unquestioned territory of the Philippines.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed last January that it granted China’s request to conduct marine scientific research (MSR) in the area. Because of China’s buildup in the West Philippine Sea, the permit has raised legitimate concern about sovereignty and national security.

The terms of this agreement had not been divulged to the public. The purpose of China’s research, to study the Kuroshio current and its impact on regional climate, was reported two weeks after the presence of Chinese vessels in the area made news.

Broadcast and print did not give much prominence to these developments. Of the three leading newspapers, only Philippine Daily Inquirer gave it banner treatment on the front page when it used one of the most credible sources on the issue, Justice Antonio Carpio, as a source (“Carpio: It’s dumb to give China access to PH Rise“).

Online counterparts did more to track the issue (“Philippines conducting Benham Rise research without China”; “DFA vague on number of Benham Rise research requests”).

Media reports cited Harry Roque, presidential spokesperson, who confirmed in a press briefing that President Duterte on February 6 ordered a stop to all ongoing MSRs, and foreign countries applying for MSRs should first seek clearance from the National Security Adviser. But China had already finished its research by the time the order was given.

It remains unclear what happened to the data that China gathered in their MSR. After its massive reclamation in the Spratlys, any Chinese interest in maritime resources should be suspect. So what reason does it have to be exploring the Philippine Rise?

The Philippine Star answered this question on February 8, in its article “China seeks to name sea features in Philippine Rise.” Citing “official sources”, the Star said: “Beijing is seeking naming rights for seven or eight submarine mountains or seamounts and ridges in Benham or Philippine Rise and the surrounding Philippine Sea.” These names, according to the Star, will be part of an internationally-recognized chart of the world’s oceans, which includes underwater features.

The Star report provided a lead for other media to follow: Prof. Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea (UP IMLOS) and the country’s leading maritime expert. In his Facebook account, Batongbacal confirmed on February 12 that the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) has approved China’s proposals to name five undersea features in the Benham Rise: one feature in 2016 and four in 2017.

News programs Bandila (ABS-CBN 2, February 14) and News To Go (GMA News TV, February 15) interviewed Batongbacal in studio and by phone, respectively, to elaborate on the IHO’s acceptance of China’s proposals. Batongbacal said the IHO, as a scientific body that adheres to scientific processes, accepts proposals from any country to name features they “discovered”, unless these are under political contention. He added that the Philippine government has been aware of foreign proposals to name Benham Rise features since 2014, but the IHO approved China’s applications because no intervention happened.

Among newspapers, Star was the only one to follow up on the larger implications of China’s actions. Its February 18 report  cited documents from the Sub-Committee on Undersea Feature Names of the IHO, which showed that the number of China’s proposals to name features increased in recent years, rising from 10 in 2013 to 42 in 2017. Most of the features, the Star said, were located in the Pacific Ocean, although some were also in the South China Sea, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The Star described the proposals made by China as “what some quarters see as a bid to cement its status as a maritime power.”  (“China wants to name 142 ocean features“)

Given the country’s loss of control over areas in the West Philippine Sea, the media should be obliged to fix their attention on China’s proximate maritime activities. Unfortunately, reporters’ search for news tends to be joined to the hip of the DFA or the Palace. When these official statements are released to the press, the matter is often beyond concern and correction.

By now it seems obvious that the experts outside government, those professionally involved in these issues in the academe, do keep tabs on China’s actions and the geopolitical issues these involve. Reporters should also consult international sources to help them realize the local and global implications of China’s intent to rule the seas.