Commentary South China Sea: Waters of Contention

Benham Rise trip: Duterte’s latest comedy act

China builds a monument on Kagitingan Reef that the Philippines claims as part of its territory in South China Sea and President Duterte announces he will sail to Benham Rise, an underwater plateau east of Luzon that has been declared part of the country’s extended continental shelf, to show the world that he is willing to die for a land mass that is not even part of Philippine territory.

In his speech before the Free Masons at the SMX Convention Center in Davao City April 26, Duterte again justified his selling out to China based on mistaken assumptions.

Pres. Duterte shares a light moment with his special assistant Bong Go,House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on the sidelines of the102nd Annual Communication of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Mason in the Philippines at the SMX Convention Center in Davao City, April 26, 2018.Malacañang photo by Joey Dalumpines.

He said: “I assure you. Who in the world would like or relish to kill his own countrymen? Precisely I said, with the issue of the China Sea, leave it at that, it’s geopolitics.

“Anyway, China has offered joint exploration and joint operation. And I said, maybe, we give you a better deal, 60-40. You cannot go against anybody. You cannot fight there. But President Xi is a friend. We’ll share with you.”

The Masons applauded.

From the South China Sea where his government is in talks with China to resume exploration of the disputed areas of the oil-rich Reed or Recto Bank near Palawan, Duterte went to the other side of the Philippines, to Benham Rise which he has renamed Philippine Rise, off the provinces of Aurora and Cagayan.

He said: “And when the issue of the Phil — Benham Rise, Philippine Rise, that there were so many ships doing explorations. And when this crucial question was asked of me, ‘what will you do if they also claim it?’” I said, ‘I will go to war.’ And I will go to war, believe me.”

To prove that he is not afraid to go to war where there is no enemy, he announced: “Next week I’m going to sail — set sail on… I’m going to the Benham Rise. And I will make a statement that nobody but nobody owns this place including the continental shelf, the underground landmass that extends under the sea.

“And if extends to San Francisco Bay, San Francisco Bay is a property of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Why the Philippines should be concerned about military facilities and monument in Fiery Cross Reef.

The Masons laughed and applauded.

Yes, it is sooo funny. It’s another great comedy act just like his Jet Ski to Spratlys complete with kissing the flag during the election campaign.

Number one, no one is claiming Benham Rise which was confirmed by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf March last year as part of the Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) of the Philippines.

No one disputes that. Not even China.

But being part of the Philippines Extended Continental Shelf does not mean it is our territory.

As explained by acting Chief Justice Antonio T. Carpio: “Under international law, Benham Rise is not part of Philippine national territory because we do not have sovereignty over Benham Rise. However, we have “sovereign rights” (less than sovereignty, but exclusive and superior to the rights of other states) over Benham Rise. Under Article 77 of UNCLOS, we have the “sovereign right” to explore and exploit the oil, gas and other mineral resources in Benham Rise, and even the sedentary species (e.g., abalone, clams and oysters). The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has confirmed that Benham Rise is part of the Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) of the Philippines.”

As to the monument in KagitinganReef, also known as Fiery CrossReef, China confirmed it. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang was asked about it during his regular press conference last April 24 and his reply was a re-assertion of China’s claim on the disputed part of South China Sea.

Old massive corals grow in the bank undisturbed. This slow-growing coral may have a life span of up to 900 years. Photo by OCEANAUPLB.

Lu said: China’s construction activities on the Nansha islands and reefs mainly aim to improve the relevant facilities of those islands and reefs as well as the working and living conditions for the personnel stationed there, so that China could better fulfill its international responsibilities and obligations, provide more public goods to the international community, and help to safeguard the security of the South China Sea navigation channels which are vital to the development of China and regional countries.

There’s also the report that Chinese military transport planes (Xian Y-7) landed on the heavily fortified Panganiban Reef also known as Mischief Reef last week.

Both Mischief and Fiery Cross Reefs are within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a television interview the Department of Foreign Affairs was studying diplomatic actions which they would rather not make public.

The public spectacle would be the Duterte Benham Rise Comedy Act.

They are probably hoping that would be entertaining enough to divert the attention from the looming crisis due tosheer incompetence and unbridled arrogance. Just to name a few- the DFA’s bungling of the OFW maltreatment in Kuwait issue, closing Boracay without a rehabilitation plan, the destruction of democratic institutions, and the continued proliferation of illegal drugs despite more than 20,000 killed.