MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday started his visit to Benham Rise (Philippine Rise) amid his government’s effort to assert Manila’s sovereign rights over the area despite the absence of a contesting claim.
Duterte’s chopper landed at 3:45 p.m. on BRP Davao del Sur, which was then expected to ferry him to the area above the underwater plateau east of Isabela.
The president was accompanied by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Carlito Galvez, and other military and government officials during the visit.
Duterte is scheduled to send off some 50 Filipino researchers who will study the resource-rich area. The visit also marks the first anniversary of the renaming of the area from Benham Rise to Philippine Rise.
The president is also set to sign a proclamation declaring some portions of Benham Rise as a marine protected area.
Duterte earlier vowed to go to Benham Rise to assert the country’s sovereign rights over it, but critics are not impressed with his plan.
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 rise as part of the country’s extended continental shelf.
Meanwhile, the inter-agency Area Task Force-North will cast a buoy at Benham 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 Benham Bank, the Philippine Rise’s shallowest point.
A fly-by of aircraft from different agencies will also be carried out.
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.
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.