Manila: President Rodrigo Duterte declared a halt to all marine exploration activities at the Benham Rise, a submerged sea territory located off the eastern coast of Luzon.
“Let me be very clear about this: the Philippine Rise is ours and any insinuation that it is open to everybody should end with this declaration,” Duterte was quoted as saying during a Cabinet meeting in Malacañang on Monday evening.
Agriculture Secretary Manny Pinol said that with the statement, the Philippine Navy is now under orders to drive out any fishing vessel or research ship located within Benham Rise, an underwater plateau.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte ordered the revocation of around 30 licences previously granted to foreign entities from China, the United States, Japan, Korea, and Germany.
In 2012, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf declared that under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea), Benham Rise is part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf. This ruling means that the country has “sovereign rights” in exploring and exploiting the natural resources on Benham Rise.
Pinol earlier said these rights are “exclusive in the sense that no other country may undertake such activities without Philippines’ express consent.”
Estimated to be a much larger than the land mass of Luzon, the 13-million hectare continental shelf east of Luzon is a natural breeding ground and habitat for marine species — making it a prime fishing ground.
In January, Roque said that foreign explorations in the sea territory would be permitted on the condition that Filipino scientists would be part of the research teams.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Allan Peter Cayetano also earlier allowed a request from China to conduct maritime research activities on the Benham Rise area, adding that the Chinese had promised to share with the Philippines whatever findings they gained from the study.
However, just weeks later, the palace made a turnaround on those permissions.
Pinol said a “low level diplomat”, presumed to be from China, issued a statement saying that the Philippines has no rights over Benham Rise.
This made the President change his mind on allowing foreign exploration in the area. “Henceforth, only Filipino scientists will be allowed to conduct researches and exploration in the Philippine Rise,” Duterte declared.
Aside from banning all foreign exploration activities, the Philippines will also patrol Benham Rose using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that will also be flown from military bases east of Luzon.
For his part, opposition Senator Bam Aquino supported Duterte’s move to prevent maritime scientific exploration on Benham Rise by other countries.
“The President’s pronouncement is a welcome development. Now we must determine our policy and plans for Benham Rise,” Aquino, chair of the Committee on Science and Technology, said.