MANILA – China was not challenging Philippines' rights over the continental shelf in the Benham Rise, its foreign ministry said.
In Beijing’s latest remarks about the incident, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China “fully respects the Philippines' rights over the continental shelf in the Benham Rise and there is no such thing of China challenging those rights.”
President Rodrigo Duterte, who sought to improve ties with China strained for years by the South China Sea dispute, also downplayed the incident, saying the presence of the Chinese ships was based on an agreement.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who broke the news on Chinese ships' presence, was however surprised by Duterte’s comments as he was not aware of any agreement involving Benham Rise.
Lorenzana last week said Chinese survey ships were spotted in Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare, bio-diverse undersea region.
China earlier confirmed its Chinese vessels were in Benham Rise for “marine research,” but it insisted this was still in accordance to the principle of “freedom of navigation” and “right to innocent passage.”
The defense chief, however, was incredulous, noting that the Chinese vessels stayed in the area for a prolonged period. He said, that can no longer be considered an innocent passage.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs also stressed that the Philippines' rights over Benham Rise was "indisputable."
Hua said, China welcomes Duterte’s response over the issue.
“China welcomes and commends relevant remarks by President Duterte. As he said, China and the Philippines have already communicated and had a friendly exchange of views on the relevant issue, clarified the facts and appropriately handled the issue,” Hua said.
Hua also stressed that while the Philippines has been granted exclusive rights over the continental shelf of Benham Rise, “the basic principle of international law says that the EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and the continental shelf do not equate with territories, and a littoral state's exercise of rights over the continental shelf should not hamper such rights as freedom of navigation enjoyed by other countries under international law.”