MANILA - Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque on Thursday said the government sees no bad faith in China's naming of five features in the Philippine Rise (Benham Rise) even as it had objected to the move.
Roque, an expert on international law, said China's move was not political and was part of an internationally recognized process.
Manila on Wednesday objected to China’s submission of names for 5 Benham Rise features to the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO).
Roque, however, recognized in a news conference Thursday that the naming process was purely scientific and does not mean that China was violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the underwater plateau located off the country's Pacific Coast.
He also said while China has already managed to name some of the features in the Benham Rise, this should not stop Manila from coming up with its own names for the features for “purposes of our domestic affairs.”
“Mayroon talagang proseso na sinusunod ang (There’s really a process being followed in the) international community and we’re not attributing any bad faith to China but we’re just saying respect us too, that we will give Philippine names to them,” Roque said.
“Dahil malinaw na malinaw naman po ang (Because it is very clear that) Benham Rise is under our sovereign rights, we do not see any basis for China to be alarmed with our position that we will insist on naming rights.”
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang, meanwhile, said China continues to respect the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the Benham Rise but said “we also hope that the relevant parties can view relevant technological work with a professional and responsible attitude.”
“According to the information I have received, the Sub-Committee On Undersea Feature Names is a specialized international organization in charge of establishing standards on naming undersea geographic features,” Geng explained.
“According to the deliberation rules of this organization, the relevant countries and individuals may submit naming proposals on the unnamed undersea features which are twelve nautical miles away from the littoral states. The Chinese side is always engaged in the relevant work in accordance with the international practices and the rules of this organization.”
Earlier this month, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a halt on all foreign research at the Benham Rise, directing the Philippine Navy to "chase out" any vessel engaged in such activity.
PROTEST TOO LATE
Meanwhile, maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal said any protest from the Philippines over China’s move to name some of the Benham Rise features may be too late.
Batongbacal said the government should have protested as early as 2004 when China started surveying the resource-rich area or when it proposed the 5 names between 2014 and 2017.
"Hindi ko alam kung magwo-work iyan (protest) dahil tapos na ang proseso [ng IHO]. Open ang process. It was transparent. So parang medyo nakakahiya rin naman sa atin na too late the hero naman tayo na biglang mag-o-object," Batongbacal told DZMM radio.
(I don't know if the protest will still work because the process is already done. The process was open, it was transparent. It may be a bit embarrassing that we are too late the hero and we are objecting all of a sudden.)
"Technically, alam nating nangyayari iyon tapos hindi tayo umaalma. It's going to be awkward and in a way, out of order na," he added.
(Technically, we knew what was happening but we did not complain. It's going to be awkward and in a way, out of order already.)
The features named by China include the Jinghao and Tianbao Seamounts, which are located some 129.6 kilometers east of Cagayan province.
Another feature is called Haidonquing Seamount, which is found east at 351.88 kms, Batongbacal said.
Two other features are Cuiqiao Hill and Jujiu Seamount, which form the central peaks of the Philippine Rise undersea geological province.
He said three of the features were reported to have been discovered in 2004 during a survey by Li Siguang Hao of the China Navy Hydrographic Office. The names were submitted for consideration in 2014.
Batongbacal added that the two features were also reported discovered by the same vessel during the same survey, but the proposals were submitted by the China Ocean Minerals R&D Association in 2016.
"All are within 200 nautical miles (370.4 kms) of the east coast of Luzon, not in the region of the extended continental shelf, but well within the 'legal' continental shelf," he said.
The 13-million-hectare Benham Rise is believed to be rich in maritime resources. The United Nations in 2012 recognized the Philippines' exclusive economic rights to the undersea plateau as part of its continental shelf.
Beijing may be interested in harvesting the minerals underneath Benham Rise, Batongbacal said, noting that it was a Chinese mining firm that proposed names for the ridge's features.
The government, he said, should take Beijing's activities as a "wake-up call" even as it pursues closer ties with the Asian superpower.
"Hindi naman como magkaibigan tayo, dapat tahimik tayo lagi. Kumbaga, mayroon ding hangganan ang pagkakaibigan, lalo na kung karapatan natin," he said.
The Philippines and China have seen improving ties as the Duterte administration pursued stronger trade relations with the world's biggest economy despite unresolved disputes over the South China Sea, also known to be rich in resources.