MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday signed a proclamation declaring a portion of Benham Rise (Philippine Rise) a marine protected area.
Duterte signed the proclamation providing for the declaration of 50,000 hectares of the underwater plateau, located east of Luzon, as a “strict protection zone limited to scientific studies.”
More than 300,000 hectares of the 13-million hectare area, meanwhile, will be designated as a special fisheries management area.
The President, with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Carlito Galvez, and other military and government officials, were supposed to sail to Benham Rise but reports indicate the group only reached a portion of Casiguran Bay off Aurora.
During the trip, Duterte also sent off some 50 Filipino researchers to study the resource-rich area. They will conduct a mapping survey, biological investigation and assessment of the coral reef and fisheries stock in the area until November.
“I have complete faith in the capabilities of these world-class scientists,” Duterte said.
“The government will provide necessary means to fulfill your mandate. This development would not have been possible without the efforts of dedicated scientists and legal experts who work together to bolster our claim over Philippine Rise.”
NO JET SKI
Duterte’s visit also marks the first anniversary of the renaming of the area from Benham Rise to Philippine Rise.
The President also said his planned visit to the Philippine Rise was meant to assert the country’s sovereign rights over it.
“Philippine Rise is ours. I did not make any distinction between sovereign rights and sovereign property, sinabi ko lang sa'tin 'yan (I just said ‘that’s ours’),” Duterte said.
His son Sebastian and top aide Christopher “Bong” Go also boarded jet skis off the coast of Aurora. The initial plan was for Duterte to ride the jet ski, but Presidential Security Group chief Lope Dagoy said the President was advised against it.
“We advised him against it because it was too hot. It was not good for his health,” Dagoy said.
During the campaign for the 2016 elections, Duterte promised to ride a jet ski to the Spratlys archipelago in South China Sea and plant a Philippine flag there to assert the country's sovereignty.
He would later take back this plan, saying he does not want to offend China, which has several artificial islands in the Spratlys.
Critics, meanwhile, are not impressed with Duterte’s visit to the area.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, earlier said Benham Rise is not a contested area and that the government should instead work on asserting its rights on the South China Sea.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, for his part, said Duterte’s visit was meant to commemorate the renaming of the underwater plateau and the United Nations’ recognition of the Philippine Rise as part of the country’s extended continental shelf.
PH FLAG TO BE PLANTED ON BENHAM BANK
Meanwhile, the inter-agency Area Task Force - North will cast a buoy at Philippine Rise on Wednesday, May 16, according to the Armed Forces’ Northern Luzon Command.
Nolcom said a flag-raising ceremony will also be held on board BRP Tarlac, simultaneous with the laying of a flag marker by volunteer Filipino divers at the shallowest point of Benham Bank.
A fly-by of aircraft from different agencies will also be carried out.
The United Nations had in 2012 awarded Philippine Rise to the Philippines as an extension of its continental shelf. With the ruling, the country was granted “sovereign rights” over Philippine Rise, which means the Philippines has exclusive rights to explore and exploit resources there.
The President earlier issued an order that foreign researchers who wish to conduct studies on Philippine 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.
Philippine 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.
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.