MANILA - Filipinos can freely explore the resource-rich Benham Rise and need not seek the government’s permission, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Thursday.
Roque made this clarification after the Filipino scientific community reacted negatively to his statement in a press briefing earlier this week which suggested that no Filipino team has applied to conduct research on Benham Rise and no Filipino could afford to carry out the “capital-intensive” endeavor.
Roque said critics to his previous statement seem to have misunderstood him, noting what he meant was that only China qualified so far among the countries which had sought application from the Philippine government to explore Benham Rise.
"I was referring to China when I said ‘no one has applied and no one can do it, because, apparently, it’s capital-intensive,’” Roque said in a statement.
"To reiterate, I never said that Filipinos cannot conduct research in Benham Rise. On the contrary, only Filipinos can do so even without express consent of our state,” he added.
The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier granted the request of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology to do research at Benham Rise, a resource-rich underwater plateau located east of Isabela which the United Nations in 2012 awarded as an extension of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert from the University of the Philippines, had criticized Roque for saying that the Philippines needs China’s help in conducting research at Benham Rise due to the high cost it entails.
Batongbacal described 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."
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.
After saying that China has been the only foreign country granted so far to conduct research on Benham Rise, Roque clarified that according to Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano, request applications to conduct research on Benham Rise by the United States, Japan and South Korea have been approved.
“This hopefully puts to rest the issue that the current administration is favoring China in the issue of Benham Rise,” Roque said.