MANILA, Philippines — (UPDATE 4 – 4:10 p.m.) President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a stop to all foreign exploration and study in the Philippine Rise, also known as Benham Rise, Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol said Tuesday, February 6.
“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 “at the start of the Cabinet Meeting in Malacañang” on Monday.
“Henceforth, only Filipino scientists will be allowed to conduct researches and exploration in the Philippine Rise,” Duterte added, according to Piñol in a Facebook post.
“He 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,” the Agriculture secretary added.
This was confirmed at a press briefing Tuesday by Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, who said Duterte “last night ordered the cessation of all marine explorations and studies by foreign scientists and directed the Philippine Navy to ‘chase out’ any vessel fishing or conducting researches in the 13-million hectare continental shelf east of Luzon formerly called the Benham Rise.”
There was no clear explanation for the about-face by the mercurial Duterte, who has cultivated warm ties with China, ostensibly to attract loans and investments and lessen Manila’s dependence on the United States.
Benham Rise was declared by the United Nations in 2012 as part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. Manila last year renamed it “Philippine Rise”.
The area is roughly the size of Greece and believed to be rich in biodiversity and tuna. Scientists from the United States and Japan have surveyed it numerous times.
However, Chinese interest, including some 18 official requests in 17 years, has caused concern among Philippine nationalists mistrustful of its intentions after decades of disputes and perceived encroachments by Beijing in the South China Sea.
Benham Rise is not in the South China Sea and Beijing has made no claim to it.
According to Piñol, Duterte said the navy should deploy vessels to chase away any fishing or research vessels, and he wants the Air Force to patrol the area.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque confirmed Duterte’s order, which he said was over a “national security issue”.
Roque gave no explanation as to why only a few weeks ago Duterte personally endorsed China’s research at Benham Rise to be performed jointly with Filipino scientists.
“Our sovereign right is unquestioned,” Roque told a regular news briefing.
“All licenses are deemed cancelled. There are no foreign entities conducting scientific research,” Roque said, adding that innocent passage would be allowed, in accordance with international law.
There was no immediate response from the Chinese government, which was planning to conduct research this month.
Pinol said the agriculture department had sent two research vessels to monitor “foreign groups” and the military would deploy unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.
He said the President’s order stemmed from a statement from a “low-level diplomat of another country” who said the area does not belong to any country. He did not elaborate.
The development did not impress the opposition, however.
Akbayan Representative Tom Villarin described Duterte’s directive as “his usual squid tactics to divert attention to the core issue — his administration’s surrender of our sovereignty to foreign powers especially to China,” an apparent reference to the government’s perceived nonchalance to reports that China is close to completing work on military installations on artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, on the other hand, said if true, “then for security and developmental reasons, all data so far gathered must be confiscated by or turned over to the Philippine government to preclude their unauthorized use by foreigners.”
Duterte’s declaration came on the heels of the uproar over reports of Chinese research, with government’s permission, in the area.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and presidential spokesman Harry Roque had defended this. Cayetano said the law allowed foreign vessels to undertake research in the territory “for as long as there is a Filipino on board.”
Roque said Duterte issued his directive after China had completed its research.
He also said the order did not constitute a ban on foreign activity in the Philippine Rise and that any country could file an application if it wished to undertake research in the territory.
Piñol made no mention of the government’s permission in the Chinese research, saying what prompted Duterte’s stance was “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, whose agency is responsible for issuing “Gratuitous Permits for Foreign Marine Explorations” through the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, said the bureau’s new Multi-Mission Off-shore Vessels, the BRP Lapulapu and BRP Francisco Dagohoy, would be deployed to the Philippine Rise “to monitor the presence of foreign groups.”
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, would also be flown from military based on eastern Luzon, he said.
While welcoming Duterte’s order, Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV said he intends to “pursue an investigation and get the input and updates from Filipino scientists about their ongoing research and exploration” in the territory.
Aquino, chairman of the committee on science and technology, also stressed the need to “determine our policy and plans for Benham Rise.” (with reports from Maricel Halili, News5; and Manuel Mogato, Reuters)