WHILE the issue of the West Philippine Sea or the Panatag Shoal is still in the backburner, here comes Benham Rise. To thank the Chinese for making us aware of these two marine addresses is an understatement. So, let me share what I know about the issue.
What is Benham Rise?
Unlike Panatag Shoal, Benham Rise is not in the quarreled over West Philippine Sea. Unlike the Panatag or Scarborough shoal no country has laid claim over the underwater plateau except the Philippines. The Philippine claim was confirmed in 2012 by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by stating that Benham Rise is part of the country’s continental shelf. And unlike Panatag again, the claim was validated, meaning it is correct. Simply put, Benham is Philippines’.
To quote Doctor Mahar Lagmay, a professor at the University of the Philippines-National Institute of Geological Sciences, and part of the team that argued for the country’s claims before the United Nations commission: “The Philippine team was able to demonstrate that there’s a connection of Philippine land territory under sea or seabed, there’s a connection between the Luzon island and the Benham Rise and from there, we used the Benham Rise to extend our claim beyond 200 nautical miles (NM).”
“The land is connected to the mass at the ocean floor which is Benham Rise. The connection is through Palanan saddle and Bicol saddle. From Bicol, if you lower the sea level, there will be a bridge, a connection of the land mass of Bicol and Benham Rise. That’s the same with the Palanan,” he added.
What is in Benham Rise?
Benham’s 13-million hectare is rich in gas and according to the country’ leading marine law expert, Jay Batongbacal, it is not only a rich source of natural gas and oil but also in other resources such as steel-producing minerals.
Marine scientists, including a team from Oceana Philippines (a non-profit organization), who explored Benham Rise in May 2016 claim that even its shallowest area has “a dazzling array of soft and hard corals, fish, algae, and sponges.” Oceana also claims that several sites in the bank boast of “one hundred percent coral cover” and also home to the bluefin tuna and other in-demand fish species, making it a commercial source of food and could serve as “a new alternative fishing grounds for Filipino fishermen, since the area is known as the migration path of fish.”
Why the presence of Chinese ships in Benham?
I am tempted to write: “ask them” and leave it at that in the same manner I would answer if asked why they mixed melamine in infant formula years back, mercury in face creams, or lead in lipsticks. (“Ask them” in resting bitch face mode, if you know what I mean).
But though Benham Rise is morphologically connected to the country, Philippines cannot claim sovereignty but only sovereign rights. Benham Rise is considered as extended continental shelf and since it is beyond the 200 NM from its baselines, the Philippines only has “sovereign rights” – less than sovereignty, but exclusive and superior to the rights of all other states.
This then means that other countries like China can conduct fishery research “because fish in the extended continental shelf belongs to humankind.” They can also conduct water studies (like plot currents), plot submarine passages and parking spaces. But according to Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, China would be violating the UNCLOS if they conduct activities to develop resources as the Philippines “has exclusive rights to explore and develop resources” in Benham Rise.
In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has expressed concern about the presence of Chinese service ships plying the area. Some would stay at a particular area for as long as a month, raising suspicions that they are surveying the seabed.
Representative Carlos Zarate has warned that the Chinese has used the same modus at the West Philippine Sea: “Under JMSU (Joint Marine Seismic Understanding), China is supposedly just surveying the Spratly area for natural gas but later it already claimed the area as theirs and even built permanent structures in our territory.”
I told you: Why is China in Benham Rise? Ask them. And don’t forget that face when you ask.
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DAVAO. Delegates of the Davao City Durians during the parade of delegations of the Davao Region Athletic Association (Davraa) Meet 2017 at the Mati Centennial Sports Complex held Sunday afternoon in Mati City, Davao Oriental. (Seth Delos Reyes)
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DAVAO. The ceremonial ribbon cutting to usher in the parade of delegations during the opening of the Davao Region Athletic Association (Davraa) Meet 2017 was spearheaded by Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) commissioner Charles Raymond A. Maxey, Davao Oriental Governor Nelson Dayanghirang and Mati City Mayor Carlo Rabat at the Mati Centennial Sports Complex Sunday afternoon. (Seth Delos Reyes)