Manila, Philippines – Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has defended the Duterte administration’s move allowing China to conduct marine research in Benham Rise off eastern Luzon, indicating that the grant of permission did not break any law.
In a news conference on Friday, Cayetano invoked a law that allowed foreign vessels to do research in the country’s continental shelf “for as long as there is a Filipino on board.”
Allowing China or any other nation to study and explore in Benham Rise — a vast undersea region located in the Philippine Sea, about 250 kilometers east of Isabela province—does not even require a policy decision, he said.
“[Permission is] a matter of course through the (Department of Foreign Affairs, or DFA) assistant secretary level. It’s not a policy decision because there is already a law,” Cayetano explained.
“It’s like (applying for) a license: If you have the requirements, go; if you don’t have it, no go,” he added.
Cayetano also played down reports that China was close to completing the construction of an air base in the Philippine-claimed Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef in the West Philippine Sea, saying that “almost everyone is building” in the disputed waters.
‘Done much better’
He would not say whether Manila would file a diplomatic protest against China’s continued fortification of Kagitingan Reef, where some 200 Chinese soldiers have reportedly been deployed.
Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano said last week that the DFA had allowed a research vessel from the Institute of Oceanology Chinese Academy of Sciences to conduct research at Benham Rise despite China’s aggressive militarization of islets and reefs within the Philippines’ 320-km exclusive economic zone.
Cayetano said he would “check the details” of Alejano’s claim that the DFA had turned down a similar request for research by a French nonprofit organization, Tara Expeditions Foundation.
“What I can assure Congressman Alejano and the Filipino people (is that) we have the same rules for all the countries. We have to follow the law,” the country’s chief diplomat said.
“Filipino law says that research can be done in the continental shelf and in certain marine areas for as long as there is a Filipino on board, (a) Filipino scientist, and for as long as all findings, data, research are shared,” Cayetano added.
He claimed that “many other countries have concluded their research [in Benham Rise]” before the undersea region was officially recognized as part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf in 2012.
“There’s nothing suspicious about approval or disapproval of scientific research, whether they are Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Mongolians, Singaporeans, etc.,” Cayetano said.
Benham Rise is a 13 million-hectare underwater plateau off Aurora province. Bigger than Luzon, the country’s largest island, Benham Rise is seen as a potential source of oil, natural gas and other resources.
In 2012, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) confirmed that Benham Rise was part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
This gave the Philippines “sovereign rights” to explore and exploit the resources in Benham Rise.
Asked about the Chinese air base in Kagitingan Reef, Cayetano said the DFA would take up the matter during an upcoming bilateral forum on the sea dispute with China.
“(For) those inhabited (features) where there are already buildings and ongoing constructions, the big question for all the claimants is how to roll it back. And it’s not just the Chinese that is building. Almost everyone is building,” he said.
“May I just reiterate that before everyone starts screaming at each other through the media,” he added.
Asked whether the Philippines would file a protest over the militarization of Kagitingan Reef, he said: “We have always and we will continue to take the proper diplomatic actions. And we have agreed with China that we will have bilateral and multilateral venues to talk about this.”