By Perry Diaz
Just when President Rodrigo Duterte became comfortable sleeping in the security of his mosquito net, knowing that those dengue-dengue killer mosquitoes wouldn’t raid his house, a new menace rears it’s ugly head in the Benham Rise, just like the fabled Loch Ness monster. Yes, its appearance in the Benham Rise has Duterte’s men scramble for ways to deal with this “threat” to Philippine sovereignty. But as it turns out, there was no real threat because Duterte allowed this “threat” to happen. It’s all part of the moro-moro that he and his friends in Beijing are playacting for public consumption.
In a press conference last March 13, Duterte admitted that he had an “agreement” with China allowing “research activities” in Benham Rise. He said that he had invited the Chinese to visit the Philippine “shores” anyway. But this invitation should only be taken in the context of Chinese tourists visiting the many resort beaches in the country. As to whether his invitation includes “research activities” – such as exploring for oil, gas, and mineral deposits – it would be stretching the imagination a bit too far.
According to Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, China may be allowed to “undertake water survey in the water column in the Benham Rise region.” He said that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), only the Philippines could build structures in Benham Rise. Noting that only the coastal state has the right to put up any structure in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf, he added, “No other state can put up a structure within our EEZ and within the extended continental shelf.” He referred to Article 60 of the 1982 UNCLOS, which states that the coastal state has exclusive right to construct artificial islands, installations and structures for exploration in its EEZ.
Benham Rise was awarded to the Philippines in 2012, after the United Nations approved her claim that Benham Rise was an extension of her continental shelf. In December 2013, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) informed the DENR – with finality — that Benham Rise is part of the country’s continental shelf and territory.
According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), this 13-million-hectare area off the coast of Aurora province is potentially rich in mineral, natural gas deposits, and manganese nodules that are vital in the production of steel. Studies conducted by DENR have also shown large deposits of methane in solid form (methane hydrate or methane ice). Further studies also showed that natural gas deposits in the area would enable the Philippines to achieve energy sufficiency.
Secret undersea exploration
In February 2016, the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) reported that several Chinese ships were seen in the Benham Rise. The following July, China Daily published a report about China’s “secret undersea exploration” in the Benham Rise area. The report said that China discovered massive mineral deposits. It also said that the volume of natural gas deposits in the area was at par with what was discovered in the Spratly Islands.
During a press conference last March 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the Philippines can explore and develop the natural resources in Benham Rise as a sovereign right but she cannot take the region as her own territory. “The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) approved the submission made by the Philippines in 2009 in respect of the limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise region, enabling the Philippines to carry out exploration and development of natural resources in this region,” Geng said.
A question of sovereignty
By raising the question of sovereignty over the Benham Rise, China has kicked into motion the geopolitical game of “territorial dispute,” which is reminiscent of China’s sovereignty claim over the South China Sea, including the mineral-rich Recto Bank.
It is now common knowledge that the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) by the Philippines, China and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands in 2005-2008 gave China an “open window” to claim the Recto Bank and other parts of Philippine territory. But as soon as then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts signed the JSMU, China started claiming Recto Bank. It’s interesting to note that 80% of the JSMU site is within the Philippines’ EEZ. As such, the Philippines has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over that region and the only country that can explore and exploit, and conserve and manage its natural resources. And this begs the question: Is Duterte’s agreement to allow China to conduct “research activities” in the Benham Rise legal and binding? And since there is insofar no documentation that an agreement was indeed signed, can the Supreme Court rule on it constitutionality? Yes, as the protector of the Constitution, the Supreme Court should – nay, must! – protect it at all cost.
Sad to say, China’s “research activities” in the Benham Rise would give China an “open window” much larger than what she was given as a result of JSMU, which makes one wonder: Was Geng Shuang’s assertion true that the Philippines can explore and develop the natural resources in Benham Rise as a sovereign right, but cannot take the region as her own territory? No, it’s not true. However, it’s a double-edged dagger intended to achieve one thing and only one thing, which is to initiate China’s “territorial claim” over the region. Yes, it’s déjà vu all over again.
If China succeeds in taking control of Benham Rise, her dream of extending her power beyond the First Island Chain all the way to the Second Island Chain and the vast Pacific beyond would be achieved.
In my column, “Chinese Dream: Beyond the First Island Chain,” (December 1, 2013), I wrote: “In an article in the Want China Times that appeared on June 27, 2013, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, was quoted as saying in 1982 that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020, respectively. ‘The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. If China is able to dominate the Second Island Chain seven years from now, the East China Sea will become the backyard of the PLA Navy,’ he said.
“China has yet to control the First Island Chain, which put her three years behind her timetable. But by imposing an ADIZ [Air Defense Identification Zone] over the East China Sea and planning to do the same over the South China Sea, China was hoping that U.S. would be shooed away from the Western Pacific. If China were successful in doing that, then the ‘Chinese Dream’ is within her reach.
“But there is one thing that prevents China from fulfilling the ‘Chinese Dream’ and that is the United States’ intent to remain a Pacific power. And at the rate China’s neighbors are coalescing together to counter China’s aggression, she may have to find a friendlier and less threatening way of winning her neighbors’ goodwill and cooperation. Instead China is stoking fear among her neighbors in the same manner that Adolf Hitler stoked fear in Europe when Germany annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. Makes one wonder if history is repeating itself?
“At the end of the day, China’s dream of going beyond the First Island Chain could turn out to be just that — a dream. Or it could be a nightmare nobody wants to wake up from.”