China plays Duterte for a sucker

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

Chinese survey ship at Benham Rise.

Chinese survey ship at Benham Rise.

Recently, Mgdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano exposed a “secret deal” worked out between President Rodrigo Duterte and the Chinese that would allow the Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences to conduct a marine scientific research in the Benhan Rise (also known as Philippine Rise).

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. Benham Rise is larger than the island of Luzon.

Map of Benham Rise region.

Map of Benham Rise region.

It did not then come as a surprise that energy-hungry China was anxious to explore Benham Rise the moment the United Nations approved the Philippines’ 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. As such, it is not subject to any maritime boundary disputes and claims.

After Alejano’s exposé was reported in the news, critics questioned the palace’s approval of the project and demanded that Malacañang withdraw the approval, which they said would be a threat to the country’s maritime security. However, in an attempt to blunt the criticisms, presidential spokesman Harry Roque announced that it was President Rodrigo Duterte who personally made the decision to let China conduct scientific research in the Benham Rise.

Foremost of those who criticized Duterte’s decision was Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who commented: “”If a bully has squatted on your front yard, and requests to look at your backyard, would you grant the request of the bully?” He noted that China has squatted on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and refuses to leave despite the ruling of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal. “The Philippines would be dumb (bugok) to grant China’s request,” Carpio said in an e-mail statement to CNN Philippines. He explained that by refusing to accept the award of the UNCLOS arbitral, China is not accepting its obligation under UCLOS (China is a signatory of UNCLOS). [Source: REUTERS January 15, 2018]

Déjà vu

Map of Recto Bank (Reed Bank).

Map of Recto Bank (Reed Bank).

China’s attempt to explore Benham Rise is nothing new. In 2005-2008, China, in partnership with the Philippines and Vietnam explored the oil-rich Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea near the Spratly Islands. Known as the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JSMU), China started claiming Recto Bank as part of her territory the moment the JSMU was signed.

Many believe that then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had sold out the country to China, giving the Chinese total access to information on oil and natural gas deposits in the Rector Bank. As one lawmaker had said, “Our bad experience with the JMSU, where our country was placed in a very disadvantageous position… is bound to happen again in the case of Benham Rise.” Indeed, it’s déjà vu all over again.

In my column, “China sets eyes on Benham Rise” (September 30, 2016), I wrote: [In July 2016] “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.

“With China’s goal of controlling the vast Western Pacific, which includes the East China Sea (ECS), South China Sea (SCS), and the Philippine Sea, the entire Western Pacific would be transformed into ‘Lake Beijing.’ The Philippines would be right in the middle of the lake, isolated from the rest of the world. ‘Lake Beijing’ would also encompass the mineral-rich Benham Rise as well.”

Grand Plan

First and Second Island Chains.

First and Second Island Chains.

In June 2013, an intriguing article appeared in the Want China Times titled, “China to take the Second Island Chain by 2020.” It says: “Within seven years [only two years from now], China will be able to control the Second Island Chain — a series of island groups that runs north to south from the Japanese archipelago to the Bonin and Marshall islands.

Chinese Admiral Liu Hoaqing.

Chinese Admiral Liu Hoaqing.

“The article also said: In 1982, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the former commander of the PLA Navy and the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, said that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020. 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.”

With China’s attempt to explore – and eventually claim – Benham Rise, Admiral Liu’s “grand plan” to dominate the Second Island Chain and establish Chinese hegemony over the entire Western Pacific, would come to fruition.

Currently, China has two aircraft carriers and a third to be completed pretty soon. With several more in the works, China would be able to extend air power throughout the entire Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Chinese floating nuclear power plant.

Chinese floating nuclear power plant.

China also has plans to build floating nuclear power plants and position them throughout the entire region. She can also build artificial islands in the Benham Rise just like she did in the South China Sea. She can then build processing plants to extract methane gas from methane hydrate. This was once an expensive process; however, China has since developed less costly method. All that she needs now are vast deposits of methane hydrate and Benham Rise has plenty of them.

Philippines’ crucial role

Bashi Channel between in Luzon and Taiwan.

Bashi Channel between in Luzon and Taiwan.

The Philippines plays a crucial role in China’s grand plan. Whoever controls the Philippines would also control passage to the Western Pacific through the Bashi Channel, which separates Luzon from Taiwan. The other passageway is the Miyako Strait between Okinawa and Taiwan. But Japan has the capability to stop China from passing through Miyako Strait, while the Philippines doesn’t have any military force at the Bashi Channel. In the event that China took possession of Luzon, the geostrategic significance of Luzon is removed; thus, allowing China unrestricted access to the Philippine Sea.

China had coveted Luzon ever since she gave up possession of Luzon in the 15th century. In 1405, during the reign of the Ming Dynasty in China, Emperor Yung Lo claimed the island of Luzon and placed it under his empire. The Chinese called the island “Lusong” from the Chinese characters Lui Sung. The biggest settlement of Chinese was in Lingayen in Pangasinan. Lingayen also became the seat of the Chinese colonial government in Luzon. When Yung Lo died in 1424, the new Emperor Hongxi, Yung Lo’s son, lost interest in the colony and the colonial government was dissolved. However, the Chinese settlers in Lingayen — known as “sangleys” –remained and prospered.

Chinese President Xi Jinping must be ruing the day Emperor Hongxi left Luzon. Xi’s “China Dream” of extending power and influence beyond her shores, which the Ming Dynasty had six centuries ago, is now within reach. It’s no longer a dream; it’s more real than ever before. With the South China Sea under China’s virtual de facto control now, it won’t be long before she gains control over Benham Rise.

The Philippines lost the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal because President Duterte abandoned the country’s claim after winning the arbitration case against China in 2016. It’s evident now that China had played Duterte for a sucker then; is he being played for a sucker again?

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)


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