DESPITE recognizing a 2012 ruling of the United Nations (UN), the Chinese government on Friday, March 10 said that Manila cannot claim Benham Rise as part of the Philippine territory.
The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2012 approved the submission of Manila in 2009, acknowledging that Benham Rise is within the continental shelf of the Philippines.
Also referred to as Benham Plateau, the region is not part of China’s nine-dash claim. No other nation has claimed it apart from the Philippines, which is also the only country within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of the plateau.
Located along the Pacific Ocean 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Isabela, Benham Rise is believed to be rich in mineral and gas deposits.
While the UN ruling allows the Philippines “to carry out exploration and development of natural resources” within the Benham Rise, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, however, stressed that “it does not mean that the Philippines can take it as its own territory.”
Last week, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it sent a note verbale to the Chinese Embassy, seeking clarification over the reported presence of a Chinese ship near the Benham Rise.
The note verbale comes after Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana raised alarm earlier this month over the survey ships that stay on the Benham Rise “as if doing nothing, but actually, they are surveying the seafloor, the seabed.”
In response, China confirmed that Chinese vessels did sail across the region but only “for marine research” and “without conducting any other activities or operations” as part of exercising the principles of “freedom of navigation” and “right to innocent passage.”
“The remarks by some individuals from the Philippines are not consistent with the facts,” Geng said.
The Chinese official also took note that based on the UNCLOS, a country’s rights over the continental shelf “do not affect the legal status of the superjacent waters or of the airspace above those waters, nor do they affect foreign ships’ navigation freedom in the coastal state’s EEZ and on the high seas, or their innocent passage through the coastal state’s territorial sea as supported by international law.”
Meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been exerting efforts to forge a closer relationship with China amid territorial conflicts, said he would rather talk than picking a fight with China over the Benham Rise issue.
“Let’s not fight about ownership and sovereignty at this time,” he said. “Things are going great for my country. When it becomes commercial to me, whether you like it or not we have to talk about the arbitral ruling.”
While expressing his belief that the reports about the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise were just “exaggerated,” Duterte remarked that the Philippines will maintain its ownership over the region.
“My order to my military, you go there and tell them straight that this is ours, but I say it in friendship,” Duterte said.
The chief executive said that he also believes China would not build structures in Benham Rise, unlike what the latter did in some parts of the conflicted maritime territories along the South China Sea.
“They’ll not do it at this time. Gugulo yan (It will cause complications),” Duterte added.