MANILA - Instead of arguing over territorial issues in the Benham Rise, it's better to shift the discourse to potential food production out of the resource-rich area, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) chief said Wednesday.
In a round-table discussion, BFAR Director Eduardo Gongona explained that food supply is the main reason why countries such as China want to explore the waters off the coasts of Isabela and Aurora provinces east of Luzon.
"Other countries [are] there because they need to feed their [citizens]. China [has] 1.3 billion [people]. Kailangan niya ng pagkain. No territorial claims muna ngayon, we share the resources," Gongona said.
The former Philippine Coast Guard official said revenues to be generated from the resources in the Benham Rise, also known as the Philippine Rise, could be used to finance the modernization of the country's defense capabilities.
"The strategy right now is not confrontational, but we focus on food na puwede natin na... We supply 'yung kailangan nila. Kailangan ng China ng pagkain, we produce food for them, but first we produce food for the Filipinos," said Gongona.
While food security is a crucial issue, Magdalo Party-list Representative Gary Alejano believes territorial claims should not be set aside. He said territorial defense is equally important to secure resources at the Benham Rise.
Alejano explained that pursuing economic interest should not be at the expense of national interest and national security. He said reefs, which could also provide food, were already destroyed by China's reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
"Hindi natin dapat isantabi lang ang isyu ng teritoryo dahil kung hindi natin kayang i-enforce ang ating mga batas through our maritime law enforcers like the Coast Guard, BFAR, DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources), eh hindi natin mapapakinabangan ang mga resources natin diyan," he said.
The lawmaker also hit the Department of Foreign Affairs for alleged lack of transparency when it allowed China to pursue maritime scientific research at the Benham Rise.
"They can always do something and do another thing. Sabihin mo na lang nag-conduct ng maritime research, for example, current lang. But they can always drill that, drill something under our seabed na hindi po natin alam," he said.
-- report from Jorge Cariño, ABS-CBN News