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Duterte orders no more foreign explorations in Benham Rise —Piñol

President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered a stop to the maritime scientific research by foreigners in the Benham Rise, according to Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol on Tuesday.

Piñol took to Facebook to share the President’s directive, which the latter reportedly said during the Cabinet meeting in Malacañang on Monday.

"Let me be very clear about this: the Philippine Rise is ours and any insinuation that it is open to everybody should end with this declaration," Piñol quoted Duterte as saying.

"Henceforth, only Filipino scientists will be allowed to conduct researches and exploration in the Philippine Rise.”

Despite this, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque Jr said there is no total ban on foreign scientific research on Benham Rise.

"Well, it's not really a ban. I guess it's just a directive that we want Filipinos to do it as much as possible, that we are reserving it for Filipinos," Roque said in a press briefing.

Piñol added Duterte directed the Department of National Defense to deploy Navy vessels and the Philippine Air Force to conduct fly overs in the area to check on the presence of foreign vessels.

Two vessels of the Department of Agriculture will also be dispatched to the Benham Rise to monitor the presence of foreign groups. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (AUV) will be flown from military bases east of Luzon to monitor the expanse of the Benham Rise, which was renamed Philippine Rise last year.

“The President issues the categorical position of the Philippine government following a statement issued by a low-level diplomat of another country who insinuated that the Philippine Rise, formerly known as the Benham Rise, does not belong to any particular country,” Piñol said.

Piñol was apparently referring to the statement of Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang last year that the Philippines cannot take Benham Rise as its own territory even if it is within Manila’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque agreed with Beijing’s stand, saying the Philippines only has sovereign rights over Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare underwater plateau off Aurora province which is seen as a potential source of oil, natural gas and other marine resources.

“Sovereign rights is different from title. Sovereign rights is the right to explore and exploit the natural and non-living resources found in the area," Roque said in a press briefing on January 22.

"We do not have sovereignty in the Benham Rise because what we only have in Benham Rise as part of our extended continental shelf is the right to explore and exploit the natural resources found thereat," he added.

The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier granted licenses for foreigners to engage in scientific research in the Benham Rise such as the Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences (IO-CAS).

The Chinese research group will be joined by a team from the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI). —KG/KBK, GMA News