BOTH the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Department of National Defense (DND) admitted to having no knowledge about the supposed agreement allowing China to conduct research in the Benham Rise.
Earlier this week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that Beijing sought his permission to let Chinese vessels survey the area for research purposes.
“They (China) have no incursion because we have an agreement,” Duterte told reporters on Monday, March 13. “Some people are just blowing it up. We previously agreed. It was a research ship. We were advised of it way ahead.”
Duterte’s statement came after Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana raised alarm earlier this month over the reported presence of Chinese surveillance ships near Benham Rise.
DFA said last week that it has sent a note verbale to the Chinese Embassy, seeking clarification over the spotted vessels.
Asked about the supposed permission given to Chinese vessels, Acting Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo responded: “I’m not aware of anything along the line you said.”
“We have no policy on that,” Manalo added. “There are ships through the area exercising freedom of navigation. But the fact that this is within the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines any ship would have to get permission from the Philippines if they wish to undertake research.”
Lorenzana also expressed surprised over Duterte’s statement: “Sinabi niya ‘yun?… Hindi ko alam ‘yan ([Duterte] said that?… I’m not informed about it).”
Located along the Pacific Ocean 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Isabela, the Benham Rise is believed to be rich in mineral and gas deposits.
The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2012 approved the submission of Manila in 2009, acknowledging that the Benham Rise is within the continental shelf of the Philippines.
Also referred to as the 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.
China earlier 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.”
On the other hand, Malacañang stated that Duterte was “not in disagreement” with the DFA and DND.
According to Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella, Manalo and Lorenzana were “simply referring to separate things.”
“There was no exclusion, there was no conflict, it was just a question of referring to separate matters at the same time…they were both apprised. They were simply referring to different situations,” Abella said.
Despite the supposed agreement with China, Duterte remarked that the Philippines will maintain its ownership over the Benham Rise 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.