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Benham Rise a non-issue at India summit—Duterte

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte will not  raise the Benham Rise issue during the India-Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in New Delhi which he will be attending this week, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Tuesday.

“What’s there to discuss on the Benham Rise issue?

There’s no dispute that we have sovereign rights over Benham Rise,” Roque said, despite Chinese officials’ repeated pronouncement that it is not owned by the Philippines and will conduct scientific research there.

The Benham Rise, officially known as the Philippine Rise, is a seismically active undersea region and extinct volcano in the Philippine Sea approximately 250 kilometers east of the northern coastline of Dinapigue, Isabela.

“There is no controversy in Benham Rise, there is no country disputing that we have sovereign rights over Benham Rise,” he said.

In related developments:

• The Philippines has jurisdiction over Benham Rise, now the subject of a marine research by the Chinese government, and other islands being contested by China, including Scarborough Shoal and the Kalayaan Group of Islands, former Senate President Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. said Tuesday.

Speaking during the Senate joint hearing on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, Pimentel said ”even as discussion in this particular forum is focused on BBL, our people should not forget that if we talk about BBL, that applies to the Republic of the Philippines.”

“We are not only talking about Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, we would like to emphasize Scarborough Shoal is ours, Kalayaan shores are ours, that Benham Rise is likewise within our exclusive economic zone [EEZ] as defined by the UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea],” Pimentel told the committees on local governmen and the constitutional amendments and revision of codes.

Pimentel, founder of the ruling PDP-Laban of which President Duterte is the chairman, has been actively pushing for a federal form of government.

• The militant fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas on Tuesday lambasted Malacanañg Palace over its pro-China statement stating that the Philippines cannot  claim Philippine Rise.

Through the Executive Order 25 signed by President Duterte in May last year, the undersea feature has been renamed from Benham Rise to Philippine Rise.

       A joint research between the Philippines and China has been approved by the Department of Foreign Affairs, which was opposed by the fishers group, saying the joint research blanketed with the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking was a pretext of China for another occupation activity in our marine territory.

      “It appears that renaming the resource-rich feature to Philippine Rise is futile; what’s in the name when you will not exercise your sovereign rights and even allow other countries to claim and exploit our abundant marine resources under the guise of ‘joint research.’ The renaming of Benham Rise was supposed to strengthen our claim on it, not to surrender,” Fernando Hicap, Pamalakaya chairman, said in a statement.

     “Instead of crafting a comprehensive plan on how we can utilize and exploit its marine resources and gas reserves for the benefit of the country, the government has almost abandoned our legal claim,” said Hicap.

“The Philippines has no title to claim Benham Rise because what we have is (sic) sovereign rights,”  Roque told reporters.

“Sovereign rights is different from title. Sovereign rights is the exclusive right to explore and exploit the natural and non-living resources, natural resources found in the area,” he said.

He said the Philippines made an application for an extended continental shelf in Benham Rise.

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

But Pimentel said the Benham Rise was within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The Presidential spokesperson said the President would join fellow Southeast Asian leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-India Commemorative Summit--January 24-26--as New Delhi seeks closer ties with its neighbors in the face of China’s growing influence.

Duterte will today for New Delhi  summit, which will celebrate 25 years of dialogue between India and the 10-Asean members.

He is expected to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss bilateral ties. 

The two leaders are also expected to talk about ways to ensure the availability of cheaper Indian-manufactured medicines in the Philippines. 

They will also discuss their cooperation agreements in defense, logistics, agriculture, and micro, small and medium enterprises signed last November.

The Duterte administration allowed China to conduct maritime research in Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare underwater plateau off the coast of Aurora, which the Philippines fought for and won before the United Nations in 2012.

The opposition Liberal Party said it was alarmed by the admission of the Department of Foreign Affairs that it had allowed China to conduct maritime research in Benham Rise.

“We demand full transparency of the deal,” stressed LP president Senator Francis Pangilinan.

“What will the country stand to gain from this marine scientific research? Why do we need to partner with China? Can’t the Philippines do it on its own? What is in store for China after the research?” he asked.

He also questioned how long the marine research would be carried out by the Chinese government and its coverage.

“What are the mechanisms and guidelines in place in the conduct of the activity?” Pangilinan added.

The opposition leader also inquired into the impact of such joint undertaking on the Philippines’ national interest and security.

“We raise these queries because history and experience tell us that China is not exactly the most trustworthy partner for such an activity,” said Pangilinan.

He said they could not just turn a blind eye to past reports about China’s bullying of our local fishermen and its constant patrolling of disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea.

Amid the protest of the Philippines and other claimant nations, he said China continued its military build-up and aggressive infrastructure projects in waters that were subject of dispute.

According to Pangilinan, the administration should be transparent in its dealings with China to allay fears of the people that it is betraying our national sovereignty and patrimony.

Meanwhile, stressing that a serious investigation on the government’s dealings with China is long overdue, Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino renewed his call for a Senate probe into the direction of the country’s foreign policy.

 On Sept.19, 2016, Aquino filed Resolution No. 158 seeking to clarify the country’s foreign policy direction to determine the administration’s position on several issues, including the West Philippine Sea, Benham Rise and other dealings with China.

 “It is important for the Senate and the public to know the foreign policy of the administration especially in its dealings with China. This is a serious issue and the Philippines has too much to lose,” said Aquino.

He said the probe would center on the details of deals entered into by the government with China, especially on the conduct of maritime scientific research in the Benham Rise or now known as Philippine Rise.

 “If these deals will truly benefit the Filipino people, there shouldn’t be anything to hide,” he added.

Meanwhile, the fisherfolk group lambasted  Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque for defending the construction of Chinese military facility in Kagitingan Reef. 

      Roque was once a staunch critic of Chinese intervention in the country; he even assisted fisherfolk in Zambales to sue Beijing before the United Nations.

       The fisherfolk group said Roque did not only re-echo Duterte’s statement, but he seemed to be the acting spokesperson of the Chinese government to spread disinformation that would justify their continuous occupation in Philippine  waters.

       “Roque’s soft approach towards China is a major setback. It is clear that his anti-Chinese intervention posture before was nothing but opportunistic act and mere publicity stunt for him to gain public attention and reach his political ambitions,” said Hicap.

       “Both West Philippine Sea and Philippine Rise are legally, politically, and morally ours. We will assert our entire rightful claim over our fishing grounds with all our might,” said Hicap.

Topics: Benham Rise , India-Association of Southeast Asian Nations
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