Has DFA approved Chinese research in PH waters? Magdalo’s Alejano wants to know

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Fisherman's boat at Banham Rise
A subsistence fisherman works his boat around Benham Bank. Tricia Aquino / InterAksyon File

(UPDATED – 5:00 P.M. Saturday, Jan 13, 2018) MANILA, Philippines — A party-list lawmaker with the opposition wants the Department of Foreign Affairs to say whether or not it has approved a request from the Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to carry out scientific research in Philippine waters.

Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano also wants to find out if one of the requirements for the research request’s approval is for the IO-CAS to be joined by the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute in undertaking the project, which will cover eastern Luzon, where Benham Rise is located, and eastern Mindanao.

“We should be careful and prudent in granting any access to our waters especially with China who is known to claim 80 percent of our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) in (the) South China Sea through its expansive 9-dash line,” Alejano said.

He noted that a similar request from a French-based non-profit organization, Tara Expeditions Foundation, to conduct marine research in the general area where the Chinese intend to carry out their study had been declined.

“Provided that we need additional resources and capabilities to study and explore our eastern waters, particularly the Benham Rise, the French-based non-profit organization is way preferable than a Chinese national scientific think tank,” Alejano, a former Marine officer, said.

“The Philippines has no territorial conflict with France, vis-à-vis China which has shown aggression and great interest on our territories. Geographically speaking, France is not an immediate security threat to us compared to China,” he added.

And, Alejano pointed out, in terms of the capability, Tara would be as qualified as IO-CAS, having accomplished high-level scientific research missions across the world’s oceans.

The lawmaker also raised the issue that there are “minimum requirements and rules in conduct of MSR that are same for all countries. However, as in any application process, there must be screening of applicants. In this case, in consideration to our national security and interests.”

“Who has history of grabbing our territories, laying claims to 80% of our EEZ, harassing our fishermen, and blocking our patrol vessels? It is the Chinese,” Magdalo Partylist Representative Gary Alejano said following Foreign Affairs Secretary Cayetano’s statement that same rules apply to all countries regarding conduct of marine scientific research (MSR) in Benham Rise.

“Given history of China’s actions, are we not supposed to be concerned and suspicious? Unless the Duterte administration has already turned a blind eye to China doing research and surveys in our waters in exchange of infrastructure projects,” he asked.

Alejano likened the actions of the Duterte administration to the Arroyo administration when it allowed the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) in the South China Sea (SCS) with China as well as Vietnam.

“What is happening now seems to be a repeat of JMSU entered into by the Arroyo administration in exchange of the anomalous NBN-ZTE and Manila-Clark Northrail deals,” he said.

It can be recalled that China has, several times since 2015, sought a permit to conduct research in Benham Rise but all applications were rejected because of denial of involvement of Filipino experts, according to the DFA’s Maritime and Oceans Affairs Office.

“China has been adamant on exploring Benham Rise and they have no intention of involving Filipino scientists. It seems that China was only forced to collaborate with UP-MIS for the sake of getting the permit. Given this initial behavior, we should be worried on whether the Philippines will be given equal access to all information culled by the joint project,” Alejano said.

“So why China? All things considered, allowing a Chinese national thinktank to conduct a so-called scientific research (in) Philippine waters, even with participation of Filipinos, is careless and absurd. What is really the intention of the Duterte administration in allowing such activity at the expense of our national security?” he asked.

Chinese vessels were spotted surveying Benham Rise for three months in 2016 without the knowledge and permission of DFA. It turned out later that Duterte had given them the authority without his officials and the Filipino people knowing it, the lawmaker said.

Benham Rise is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf awarded by the United Nations in 2012 and is believed to be rich in minerals and gas.