Flashpoint in the East? Eyes on Benham Rise
WHERE IS Benham Rise? Not everyone knows. It seemed neither did the President Duterte.
“Let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time because things are going great for my country.” President Rodrigo Duterte has recycled his message in speeches during his term, in an attempt to set aside 2016 arbitration ruling favoring the Philippine claim over disputed areas in the South China Sea. He reiterated this in a press conference on March 13 as he responded to a question of GMA-7 reporter Joseph Morong, who asked about the presence of Chinese vessels in Benham Rise: “You (addressing himself to China) cannot also claim it because I am claiming it. Kung panahon na (When the time comes) it becomes commercial to me, then as I have said, whether you like it or not, we’ll have to talk about the arbitral ruling” (referring to the Hague decision). He also added that there was no incursion because he and China “previously agreed” and that the Philippines was “advised of it way ahead” – obviously referring to the Chinese.
But Morong was asking about Benham Rise, the 13-million hectare underwater plateau east of Luzon, pointing out in his question that the area was not included in the Hague ruling because it was not claimed by any other country. Although not Philippine territory, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) grants the Philippines sovereign rights to conduct exclusive exploratory activities in the underwater structure.
Benham Rise emerged in the media on March 9 when National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana expressed concern over Chinese vessels spotted in the area, a presence which had been monitored by the Philippine Navy for three months. Lorenzana believed that the ships might be doing underwater research and exploration. The Chinese Foreign Ministry gave a statement on March 11, saying that it was only exercising freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage.
That the president’s answer revealed that he did not know the location of Benham Rise added to the confusion in media, where some reports repeated Duterte’s lack of concern about the Chinese presence since it had already been “previously agreed.”
Only Rappler noted the president’s unfamiliarity with the two marine areas in its article by Carmela Fonbuena, “Duterte shows alarming confusion over Benham Rise.” Asked about the new conflict, Duterte replied with a “familiar 4-minute recital of his usual litany on the foolishness of pressing the country’s victory in the arbitral ruling, which actually covers the West Philippine Sea and not Benham Rise.” Rappler noted Duterte’s confidence in responding to Morong’s question about allowing China to build structures in Benham Rise as was done in the West Philippine Sea: “They will not do it at this time.” Fonbuena also wrote that Duterte had also said China might cause tension, as the United States, according to Duterte, “wants to pick a fight there.”
The article made clear that “there was no question Duterte was talking about the West Philippine Sea all along.” Either that or “he doesn’t appreciate the difference between the two maritime territories.” US vessels have been deployed in the South China Sea, but none of these have been present in Benham Rise.
Chinese vessels in the Benham Rise deepen the concerns about the country’s security and defense measures. Yet in reporting other related developments, news stories did not provide Morong’s question as a background, failing to point out that this new “flashpoint” is not covered by the Hague ruling. Nor did these accounts refer to the president’s mix-up.
Eager but Meager Media Attention
News organizations waded eagerly into the exchange, some using visuals to show the location of Benham Rise and noting the resources it may hold. Experts interviewed included UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of The Sea (IMLOS) Prof. Jay Batongbacal, UP National Institute for Geological Sciences (NIGS) Director Mario Aurelio, and Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who had conducted comprehensive lectures about the South China Sea dispute.
Journalists quoted Lorenzana and acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, who said that they were not aware of any agreement that Duterte made with China on the Benham Rise. Manalo later clarified that Duterte only issued a “general invitation” to countries who want to visit the Philippines. He added that the DFA had already turned down pending requests from China to survey the underwater landmass.
Following the reported incursion, the Philippine Navy and the Coast Guard have been patrolling Benham Rise, prompting the Senate to hold hearings on security and defense concerns, and the possibility of creating a Benham Rise Development Authority.
Reporters tracked new challenges to developments in the Benham Rise. ABS-CBN’s Chiara Zambrano, while onboard the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, exclusively reported that an unidentified drone hovered over the Philippine vessel as it patrolled the area. However, the ship was neither able to identify the aircraft nor who was flying it.
In his story, GMA-7’s DanoTingcungo reported Prof. Batongbacal’s findings during the senate hearing on the proposed Benham Rise Development Authority that a Chinese state website reported successful collection of marine samples in the area. Tingcungco also interviewed Oceana marine scientist Marianne Saniano, who said that the country has the experts and the technical capability to do its own research in the area, but there has been no funding available for expeditions.
A New Flashpoint?
While the media demonstrated commendable coverage of China’s presence in the area, it has not pressed government to say what it is ready to do about this new challenge from China, given the previous incursions of China in the West Philippine Sea.
Paterno Esmaquel II, also from Rappler, reported the line of inquiry posed by journalists Gabby Tabunar and Dana Batnag (both reporting for foreign media organizations): Wasn’t the department curious as to what Chinese ships were doing in Benham Rise? Why should China’s non-clarificatory answer—that it respects the Philippines’ sovereign rights—be accepted? Manalo answered: “Well I think you should ask China. We asked them for that, and that’s what they told us. But you know, they have consistently applied for permission, and… as I said, in many cases, they have already been denied. So in this particular case, as I said, we were investigating, and that was how they replied.”
This kind of critical questioning is especially called for to prod government to develop some strategic policy to address China’s persistent challenge to Philippine sovereignty over the seas on the west and now, on the east.
Duterte’s laid back attitude about China’s incursions on Philippine waters fails to assure that the government is prepared to set policy on this critical issue, given our lack of military resources. With his fixation against the arbitral ruling, Duterte has nothing else to offer. It is not assuring that he does not seem to be well-informed about every aspect of these maritime questions.
Media should take the lead and report in greater detail the lack of concern of the Duterte administration about China’s activities in Philippine waters. Unfortunately, some of the press are not willing to question him about this issue or even to pursue further discussion about the special relationship with China that the president seems intent to protect.