A maritime law expert criticized Wednesday a statement from President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesperson that only China can conduct research in the Benham Rise because the endeavor is capital intensive.
Prof. Jay Batongbacal did not mince words, describing Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque's claim as something "based on ignorance" and calling out the Philippine government for making a "brazen falsehood" on the issue.
"Government's denigration of Filipino scientists and Filipinos in general, claiming they cannot explore the Benham Rise without China or Chinese money, is a total sham meant to disempower and demean Filipinos and their capacity and capability as a people. It makes Filipinos appear helpless, clueless and penniless on something already demonstrated they are not," he wrote on his Facebook page.
"We are not a nation of beggars for small change, even if it is from a country as big and rich as China."
The director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea took issue with Roque's statement to the press that "Filipinos cannot afford to explore Benham Rise," that "no one can do it," that the Philippines "needs China" to do it, and that "only China qualifies."
Refuting Roque's claim, Batongbacal made a list that shows years of research done by Filipino scientists on the resource-rich underwater plateau located east of Isabela.
EIGHT REASONS WHY
From 2004 to 2008, he said the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources conducted a survey of the Benham Rise and produced a highly detailed 3d digital bathymetric model.
The survey was done by a full Filipino crew and funded by the Philippine government.
Second, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources of the Department of Agriculture has been conducting annual fisheries research and experimental fishing expeditions in the Benham Rise to determine the tuna fishery potential of its waters.
In 2014 and 2016, Batongbacal said two oceanographic research cruises were organized that gave Philippines its initial glimpse of Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of the Benham Rise. The research was supported by national government agencies and several academic institutions.
Fourth, the UP National Institute for Geological Sciences (NIGS) and the UP Marine Science Institute have been collaborating with counterpart institutions from Korea and Japan since 2016 to begin initial exploration of the seabed in the Benham Rise.
Geologists from UP NIGS, he also listed, have produced academic papers and analysis, which were used as evidence to support the claim to the Benham Rise.
Sixth, marine biologists in the Philippines have been analyzing samples and observations gathered from research cruises.
The marine biologists have made interesting findings and potential discoveries, he said.
Seventh, a deep-sea research vessel, known as BRP Gregorio Velasquez, was handed over to the Philippine Navy by the US.
Lastly, he said, the Philippines has been offered by "at least one friendly country" with up-to-date technologies, such as underwater autonomous vehicles costing $100,000.
NOT THE ONLY ONE
Batongbacal acknowledged that China is a "formidable scientific force in the contemporary ocean sciences" but added that "it is by no means the only one."
"China is an obvious opportunity, but not an absolute necessity," he said.
Batongbacal also said the limitations of Philippine marine science are "not so much a matter of poverty as it is a matter of priorities."
"The modest efforts to date demonstrate that with the proper budgetary support from government and clear research goals and objectives, as well as a good vision and great confidence in our own people and expertise, the Philippines can do these things on its own," he said.
"We may have relatively few marine scientists and even fewer marine science vessels, but they have done a lot despite limited resources. What more if government actually gave the sector the attention it deserves?"
The Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare area located east of Luzon island believed to be gas-rich, was awarded to the country in 2012 by the United Nations after Manila successfully proved that it is part of Isabela province's extended continental shelf.