MANILA - The Philippine government asserted its right to Benham Rise on Tuesday, following China's claim that Manila cannot declare the resource-rich water way as its territory despite a 2012 United Nations ruling.
"Benham Rise belongs to the Filipino people. The Philippine government is duty-bound to defend and protect the sovereign and territorial right of this region," Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a press briefing.
"Other countries can exercise innocent passage and territorial navigation, but they are disallowed to stay and establish any structure in the area."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang confirmed Monday that Chinese vessels recently passed through Benham Rise for "marine research", but insisted this was only in exercise of the principle of "freedom of navigation" and "right to innocent passage."
Geng added that though the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf had approved Manila's claim to Benham Rise, “it does not mean that the Philippines can take it as its own territory.”
Abella said the Philippines' claim to the region is supported not just by the ruling, but also by Article 77 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Manila, he added, "has a responsibility to oversee and regulate the sailing ships of other countries that pass Benham Rise."
President Duterte has pledged his full support to strengthening law enforcement agencies that monitor Philippine air space and territorial waters.
Abella said the Philippines will nonetheless "pursue diplomatic talks with the other party."
The issue risks disturbing ties with China at a time of rare cordiality between the two countries under Duterte, who has chosen to tap Beijing for business rather than confront it over its maritime activities and intentions in disputed waters.
Rows with China have usually been about the South China Sea, west of the Philippines, a conduit for about $5 trillion of shipped goods annually. China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
While Duterte has been sanguine about ties with China, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is more wary, saying that Beijing's fortification of man-made islands inside the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone has not abated.
Duterte said ties with China were in good shape and dismissed any suggestion of diplomatic disputes resurfacing soon.
"Let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time, because things are going great for my country," he said. -- With Reuters