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Maritime law expert: Roque ‘wrong, ignorant’ to say ‘only China qualified’ to explore Benham Rise

A maritime law expert on Wednesday took exception to presidential spokesperson Harry Roque Jr’s remark that “only China qualifies” to explore the resource-rich Benham Rise as he listed several “modest” research expeditions Filipinos have undertaken in the area.

Roque’s claim is “completely wrong,” “based on ignorance,” and a “serious disservice” to Filipinos, scientists or not, said Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

It is also an “over-exaggeration of China’s potential role in the Philippine ocean sciences,” he said in a public Facebook post, later pointing out that while China is a “formidable” force in contemporary ocean sciences, “it is by no means the only one.”

The Philippine government has made an agreement with a Chinese institute that granted it permission to explore Benham Rise, which sits east of Luzon. The Philippines has sovereign rights over the area that were granted by the United Nations in 2012.

“For gov’t to say that Filipinos need China to explore Benham Rise as if there is no else that can do it is both a brazen falsehood and a disservice to the hard work and dedication, the talents and capacities of the Filipino scientific community,” Batongbacal wrote.

He was responding to a statement made by Roque that “no one can do it [explore Benham Rise] because, apparently, it’s capital intensive.”

Batongbacal backed up his claim by listing several explorations, further saying that the country’s scientists can still tap new technologies for marine research endeavors.

For one, he said the Department of Environment and National Resources’ National Mapping and Resource Information sent a Philippine and Filipino-manned vessel from 2004 to 2008, and again in 2010, to conduct multiple surveys that produced a “highly-detailed 3D digital bathymetric model” of the Benham Rise region that adhered to international standards.

This model, he said, was “absolutely necessary” for the country to support its later-granted claim to the continental shelf in the area.

He also said that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has been conducting annual fisheries research and experimental fishing expeditions in the region for the past decade.

Moreover, he said several academic institutions embarked on two government-funded research cruises in 2014 and 2016, which gave Filipino scientists, marine science students, Navy and Coast Guard technical divers, and mariners their “initial glimpse” of Benham Bank, the shallowest part of Benham Rise. 

Another similar research cruise is planned for 2018.

The Philippines now also has a deep-sea research vessel called the BRP Gregorio Velasquez, formerly the USS Melville and was donated by the US to the Philippine Navy. This is seen to add to the small research and multi-purpose vessels the country owns and operates.

Batongbacal also claimed at least one “friendly country, not China” has offered the Philippines artificial intelligence-guided underwater autonomous vehicles worth around US$100,000 each—for free.

“The limitations upon Philippine marine science capacities and capabilities is not so much a matter of poverty as it is a matter of priorities,” the maritime law expert wrote, adding that the country “can do things on its own” with government financial support, clear research objectives, a “good vision” and “great confidence.”

“This gov’t’s denigration of Filipino scientists and Filipinos in general, claiming they cannot explore Benham Rise without China or Chinese money, is a total sham meant to disempower and demean Filipinos and their capacity and capability as a people,” he said.

“It makes Filipinos appear helpless, clueless and penniless on something already demonstrated they are not. We are not a nation of beggars for small change, even that coming from a country as big and rich as China,” he added.

Batongbacal was part of the team that prepared and defended the Philippines' claim to a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise Region filed with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, according to his profile on the UP College of Law website. — MDM, GMA News