Raging Waters in Benham Rise
by Jay Batongbacal/ 22 March 2017 / AMTI
Philippine secretary of national defense Delfin Lorenzana stirred up a political maelstrom in Manila last week with the revelation that Chinese survey vessels were apparently conducting oceanographic research work off the east coast of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. The vessels were spotted in the waters of the Benham Rise, a large underwater plateau in the Pacific Ocean east of Luzon that is partially within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. In 2012, the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf validated the Philippines’ claim to an extended continental shelf that encapsulated the entirety of the rise. Lorenzana’s report indicated that the Chinese survey vessel had repeatedly traversed the rise over three months in a stop-and-go pattern characteristic of survey work, and that this was not the only instance of such activities.
China initially responded to Lorenzana’s accusations by questioning the Philippine claim on Benham Rise, before dialing back its criticism to say it respects Philippine sovereign rights to the area. It also denied that the vessel was engaged in marine research work and insisted it was merely exercising innocent passage through Philippine waters. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte said the incident was “blown out of proportion” and claimed that the vessel’s research was previously agreed upon with China. This admission only created more confusion, since neither the defense nor the foreign affairs departments of the Philippines had heard of any such agreement. Amid growing controversy, opposition lawmakers filed an impeachment complaint as Congress went into recess.
The incident underscores the Philippine public’s heightened sensitivity to the country’s unresolved maritime territorial and jurisdictional problems, as well as persistent worries over interactions with China. Filipinos remain divided and on edge regarding the current modus vivendi with China, and simmering frustrations with the soft stance taken by President Duterte toward the South China Sea disputes have found an outlet in Benham Rise.
China’s interest and activities in and around Benham Rise, as well as the rest of the Pacific seaboard of the Philippines, should not be any surprise. As Beijing consolidates its hold on the South China Sea, it is logical to expect expansion outward into the Pacific. The objectives of this expansion are likewise unsurprising; it is not to gain new territory, but to increase and ensure China’s oceanic footprint. As part of its greater economic strategy, China’s “Blue Economy” initiatives naturally propel it to invest more and more in marine research activities that could lead to sea-based economic opportunities. Its expanding military capabilities require its growing navy to become familiar with the deep ocean environment for surface and undersea operations. And its growing scientific community, especially in the well-funded ocean sciences, will continue pursuing cutting-edge marine scientific research. All these translate into increased activity in the Pacific, the gateway to which is the fragmented and fragile Philippine archipelago. Read more…