MANILA – A joint Senate panel is set to conduct a hearing this week on the reported presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise.
"We have found it prudent to conduct another hearing in order to paint a clearer picture of the facts as we explore long-term strategies to uphold and defend our sovereign rights over Benham Rise," said Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate economic affairs committee.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier expressed concern after a Chinese survey ship was spotted last year in Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare area that was awarded to the country by the United Nations in 2012 after Manila successfully proved that it is part of Isabela province's extended continental shelf.
President Rodrigo Duterte has downplayed the presence of Chinese ships in the area, while China maintained it does not have a dispute over Benham Rise with the Philippines.
According to Gatchalian, representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of National Defense (DND) are invited to the March 29 hearing to “shed light on the details of the alleged Chinese incursion into the area and any diplomatic exchanges between Philippine and Chinese officials on the matter.”
Critics have slammed Duterte for his supposed weak response to Chinese incursion in Philippine waters, but Gatchalian said he will not let the March 29 hearing be politicized.
"The primary purpose of this hearing will be to craft a cohesive executive-legislative strategy for the long-term defense and development of the Benham Rise. If the political opposition is expecting a political fault-finding mission, then they will surely be disappointed," Gatchalian said.
The hearing will be conducted jointly by the economic affairs and finance committees. It is a continuation of the hearing concerning Senate Bill No. 312, the Benham Rise Development Authority Act, authored by Senator Sonny Angara.
While foreign ships are allowed to pass through Benham Rise under the concept of innocent passage, the Philippines has sovereign rights over the resources that can be found in it.
"There is an urgent need to conduct extensive scientific research in the Benham Rise to fully discover how its development will benefit the Filipino people,” Gatchalian said.
“It will be a long-term process that will require considerable capacity building efforts on our part. These plans must be put into place now so that future generations of Filipinos will be able to reap the benefits of the area's ecological wealth and unexplored energy resources.”