Filtered By: Opinion

5 key facts on Benham Rise

Around a year ago, the obscure Benham Rise was catapulted to the center of national discourse, when Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed the suspicious presence of Chinese vessels within our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Philippine Sea. Back then, the defense chief raised concerns over the possible military dimension of China’s presence in the area.

Lorenzana’s misgivings unleashed a nationwide discourse on how the country should respond to the issue, since China, unlike in the West Philippine Sea, wasn’t claiming the Benham Rise per se. Not to mention, under President Rodrigo Duterte, we have been pursuing rapprochement with the Asian juggernaut, which has offered billions of dollars in infrastructure investment deals.

Under growing public pressure, with even legislative allies raising concerns over Chinese activities in the area, the administration was compelled to take a nationalistic stance and rename Benham Rise as Philippine Rise.

At first, the president downplayed the whole issue, claiming that he unilaterally gave China the permission to conduct research in the area. Interestingly, Duterte at first didn’t seem to even know where Benham Rise was -- mistakenly thinking it was situated on the other side of our shores, namely in the West Philippine Sea.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), meanwhile, denied that any permission was granted to China to conduct Marine Scientific Research (MSR) in the area.

Crucially, they also revealed that MSR requests were repeatedly rejected in the past, because China refused to comply with our basic requirements, including allowing at least one Filipino scientist to accompany their Mainland counterparts for the duration of research. This naturally raised alarm bells vis-à-vis the intentions of China.

A year on, the Duterte administration, now under a new spokesman (Harry Roque) and foreign affairs secretary (Alan Peter Cayetano), has given the go-ahead signal for China to conduct MSR in Benham Rise. Vociferous opposition from China hawks and nationalist elements in the country, quite predictably, met the decision.

Justice Antonio Carpio, a leading voice for greater Philippine assertion of its sovereign rights and territorial integrity, bluntly described any cooperation agreement with China in Benham Rise as “dumb”, since "China has squatted on the West Philippine Sea and refuses to leave despite the ruling of the [Arbitral] tribunal.”

Then came the controversial comment from Duterte’s new spokesman, Harry Roque, who claimed that the Philippines needed China’s help, because "no one can do it because, apparently, it’s (scientific research) capital intensive." Mr. Roque also echoed China’s line that the Philippines doesn’t have sovereignty over Benham Rise.

Meanwhile, he also kept a distance from America’s latest Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) aimed at challenging to China’s coercive occupation of the Scarborough Shoal. He dismissed the United States Navy’s (USN) latest maneuver, which clearly benefits the Philippines, as a “US-China intramural”, where we supposedly have no interest to be involved in.

Never mind that it’s the Americans, as Secretary Lorenzana has mentioned, who have dissuaded China from fully reclaiming the shoal, which we claim as part of our national territory, through FONOPs and surveillance operations. No wonder then, the defense secretary defended America’s FONOPs in the shoal.

But, what is really at stake in the Benham Rise? What is being fought over? Do we have any legitimate claim there? What should we do? The following are three key issues that we should keep in mind.

I. The Benham Rise is a volcanic plateau, which is part of our extended continental shelf in the Philippine Sea. Similar to an EEZ, we do have “sovereign rights” in the area -- rather than “sovereignty”, since we’re not talking about a full-fledged island or land formation, to which we can have title to claim – based on Article 77 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which makes it clear that a coastal state has sovereign rights over its continental shelf for the purpose of "exploring it and exploiting its natural resources."

Crucially, those rights are “exclusive”, meaning other states can’t conduct any exploration and exploitation activities in Benham Rise without our express permission. As the UNCLOS puts it quite unambiguously, "The rights…are exclusive in the sense that if the coastal State does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources, no one may undertake these activities without the express consent of the coastal State."

II. We should keep in mind that per our constitution, Benham Rise --- as part of our continental shelf -- is part of our national territory. Based on international law, however, we don’t have full sovereignty over it. Yet, the distinction between “sovereign rights” and “sovereignty” is not a major categorical difference, but instead more of various manifestations of exclusive rights of a coastal state along a broad spectrum of jurisdictional regime. Yes, we can’t claim the whole water enveloped by the plateau in the area as our “territory” per se, as China does in adjacent waters, but we have full and exclusive sovereign rights -- based on a 2012 United Nations ruling, which is, in accordance to the Art. 76(8) of the UNCLOS, “final” and “binding” -- over resources in the area.

III. China is certainly correct to emphasize its right to freedom of navigation (FON) and overflight (FOO) in the area per UNCLOS, but that’s very rich coming from a country that rejects UNCLOS-based arbitration ruling as a “piece of trash paper and claims the whole South China Sea as its own blue national soil, not to mention impedes FON and FOO through massive reclamation and militarization in Spratlys and Paracels, with Scarborough Shoal hanging in the balance.

IV. There are good reasons to be concerned about China’s intentions in the Benham Rise. Under the so-called “Island Chain Strategy,” Beijing views much of the Philippine Sea and Western Pacific as falling under its “second island chain”, a maritime buffer zone that it aims to dominate within the coming decade. In China’s view, domination of that area is key to keeping America’s naval prowess and footprint in adjacent waters in check.

V. Finally, this is precisely why it behooves the Duterte administration to be fully transparent in terms of its supposed MSR with China. The MSR is reportedly between Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences (IOCAS) and the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI). And it will focus on studying climate-driving ocean currents. This looks all fine and dandy, and we should indeed peruse mutually beneficial agreement with all countries, including China. But as the Russian proverb goes, “Trust, but Verify”.

Richard Heydarian is GMA Resident Political Analyst and author of, among others, “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed, London).