MANILA (UPDATE) - President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday said he would visit Benham Rise next week to make a bold statement that the Philippines has exclusive rights to the area.
Speaking during an event hosted by Filipino freemasons in Davao City, Duterte said he would visit the resource-rich underwater plateau east of Isabela “next week” to make a statement that the Philippines “owns this place.”
“Next week, I’m going to set sail to Benham Rise and I will make a statement there that nobody but nobody owns this place, including the continental shelf,” Duterte said in his speech, a video of which was released on Friday.
The President also said he would “go to war” if some other countries claim the submerged plateau.
The United Nations had in 2012 awarded Benham Rise to the Philippines as an extension of its continental shelf. With the ruling, the country was granted “sovereign rights” over Benham Rise, which means the Philippines has the exclusive rights to explore and exploit resources there.
The President earlier issued an order that foreign researchers who wish to conduct studies on Benham Rise would need the permission of the National Security Adviser.
This followed heavy criticism against the government for allowing China to explore the area despite its unresolved disputes with the Philippines over the South China Sea, resource-rich waters on the archipelago's west coast.
Benham Rise was also put on the spotlight after it was revealed that China has managed to name five features there following an unauthorized research trip in 2004.
The Philippines then said it would come up with its own names for the said features and also contest China’s move, even as it admitted it has no capacity to do expeditions similar to the ones undertaken by the Chinese.
Duterte’s tough rhetoric on Benham Rise is starkly different from his stand on the South China Sea, waters being claimed almost entirely by China.
Critics have been slamming Beijing’s activities in the disputed waters, including its building of artificial islands in the Spratlys archipelago and its “militarization” of the area.
Duterte has chosen to downplay the dispute as he seeks to improve Manila’s ties with Beijing.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Duterte vowed to go to the Spratlys on a jetski and plant a Philippine flag there.
The President, however, took back his words a year later, saying doing so would likely cause trouble.
“Because of our friendship with China, I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag," Duterte had said.
The Philippines and China have for decades been embroiled in a dispute over the South China Sea. It reached a critical point during the presidency of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who led the filing of a case against Beijing before a United Nations-backed tribunal in 2013.
The tribunal ruled in favor of Manila in 2016, declaring China’s expansive nine-dash line claim to the sea invalid. Beijing has ignored the landmark ruling.