Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the navy to put up “structures” to assert sovereignty over a stretch of water east of the country, where Manila has reported a Chinese survey ship was casing the area last year.
The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing after the vessel was tracked moving back and forth over Benham Rise, a vast area east of the country declared by the United Nations in 2012 as part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
The Philippines says Benham Rise is rich in biodiversity and fish stocks.
China’s foreign ministry on Friday said the ship was engaged in “normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage”, and nothing more.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte’s instruction was to increase naval patrols in that area and put up structures “that says this is ours”. He did not specify what structures would be erected.
“We are concerned, they have no business going there,” Lorenzana told reporters late on Sunday.
Though he accepts China’s explanation, Lorenzana said it was clear its vessel was not passing through the area because it stopped several times, for sustained periods.
Lorenzana last week said he was suspicious of China’s activities near Benham Rise and suggested they might be part of surveys to test water depths for submarine routes to the Pacific.
US Senator Dan Sullivan
Asked during a news conference what his instruction was to the navy concerning Benham Rise, Duterte said the Philippines had to assert itself, but gently.
“You go there and tell them straight that this is ours,” he said. “But I say it in friendship.”
The issue risks disturbing ties with China at a time of rare cordiality between the two countries under Duterte, who has chosen to tap Beijing for business rather than confront it over its maritime activities and intentions in disputed waters.
Rows with China have usually been about the South China Sea, west of the Philippines, a conduit for about $5 trillion of shipped goods annually. China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
While Duterte has been sanguine about ties with China, Lorenzana is more wary, saying that Beijing’s fortification of manmade islands inside the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone has not abated.
Duterte said ties with China were in good shape and dismissed any suggestion of diplomatic disputes resurfacing soon.
“Let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time, because things are going great for my country,” he said.
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Benham Rise is a shallow bathymetric feature, east of Luzon, that towers above the adjacent deep ocean floor. The shallowest part, which is Benham Bank, is less than 50 meters deep. NAMRIA image
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte claimed Monday that China had informed him beforehand of its plan to pass through Benham Rise, an area recognized by the United Nations as part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“We were advised way ahead but we have the right to ask ‘how are things going? What is your purpose?’” the president said in a press conference in Malacañang.
“We don’t want to dignify (that). Things are getting great our way. Why spoil it?” he added.
Duterte’s friendly tone towards China was very different from that of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who previously expressed concerns over the presence of Chinese vessels in Benham Rise.
Duterte believes that reports about the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise were just exaggerated.
“Pinalalaki lang yan (it is being exaggerated),” the president said.
Asked to react to China’s claim that the Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise, Duterte said: “Let’s not fight about ownership and sovereignty at this time. Things are going great for my country. When it becomes commercial to me, whether you like it or not we have to talk about the arbitral ruling.”
When reminded that the Benham Rise is not covered by the 2016 arbitral ruling on the South China Sea, Duterte said: “My order to the military is to tell them straight that it’s ours and say it in friendship.”
Duterte believes China would not be aggressive in Benham Rise unlike in the South China Sea, where it occupied disputed areas despite protests from other claimants.
“They’ll not do it at this time. Gugulo yan (It will cause complications),” the president said.
Duterte believes that there are no strings attached to China’s commitment to support Philippine projects. He noted that a third of the assistance are “almost grants” payable in 30 years and renewable for another 30 years.
“Why pick a fight? I’d rather talk. Kung gusto nila ng show of force dun, papuntahin ko Navy. Pagdating dun, banggain mo lang sa likod then say sorry naglalambing lang po. May amin kami diyan. Ganun lang (I will send the Navy, ask them to hit the rear part of their ship and say sorry, just showing affection. We own that. That’s it),” the president said in jest.
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