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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Giving it a name

President Rodrigo Duterte has signed Executive Order 25 renaming Benham Rise, the 13-million hectare undersea landmass off the coast of Isabela province, to Philippine Rise.

Five years ago, the United Nations Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Philippines’ claim to the underwater plateau, believed to have vast deposits of nickel, copper and silver. The Philippines successfully proved that Benham Rise was part of its extended continental shelf.

The Agriculture Department is also studying its potential for food security.

According to the EO, all agencies of the government shall use “Philippine Rise” in lieu of the old name, which reflects the name of the American surveyor who discovered it.

But why only now? The change in name five full years after the granting of the Philippine claim is significant. Last year, Chinese ships were spotted surveying the region even as China claimed innocent passage and freedom of navigation.

The Philippine Rise lies east of Luzon Island, it is unimaginable how China could even contemplate the thought it might have rights at all, unlike its assertions in 90 percent of the South China Sea west of Luzon. Assertion would be good reason to rename the underwater mass.

Assertiveness would also be a good virtue in the face of threats and double talk from anybody from the international community.

For example, President Duterte reported that China’s leader Xi Jinping threatened to go to war over disputed territory—but continues to act warm toward it. Now other officials are warning the President against what may be perceived as inconsistency when he says what he wants to pursue an independent foreign policy.

An associate justice of the Supreme Court, Antonio Carpio, has advised Mr. Duterte to elevate the threat of war to the United Nations. But even if we did involve the UN—again—and even if it decided in our favor—again—this is no guarantee that we would now adopt a more assertive stance towards China. Just look at what happened with the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

Names are significant, sure. But it is what the administration does and does not do in response to threats—implied or otherwise—that will show how serious it is in defending what is ours. This will in turn define others’ behavior toward us.

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