Philippine Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol is attempting to undo an international gaffe by President Rodrigo Duterte, moving to establish a research facility on Benham Rise, a 13 million-hectare underwater plateau 250 km. east of the island of Luzon.
The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf declared the area part of Philippine territory in 2012, only to have Duterte tell Chinese officials during a 2016 trip to Beijing that they could explore it – without consulting his own defense or foreign affairs officials. There is considerable conjecture in Manila that Duterte mistakenly thought Benham Rise was in the South China Sea.
Subsequently, Chinese research vessels spent three months passing through the area in late 2016. China’s presence is triggering concerns of incursions and, as it did in the case of Scarborough Shoal, even seizure. Both countries claim sovereignty, with the two engaging in a three-month standoff over the shoal, which the Philippines calls Bajo de Masinloc, in 2012.
In July 2016, however, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ruled that China cannot invoke its nine-dash line claim in preventing other claimants from accessing South China Sea resources. Despite of the landmark victory acknowledging the Philippines’ maritime rights over the area, Chinese vessels never left Scarborough Shoal. Its Coast Guard continues to patrol the waters, with regular reports of Filipino fishermen being harassed by them. Duterte, shortly after he was elected, said he would ignore the ruling, which dismayed the littoral nations that had hoped for solidarity to slow China’s claim to the entire sea.
Piñol, Duterte’s ally, now aims to convince the president that the Philippines must show ownership of Benham Rise and protect at all costs. This week, he led a team of marine experts from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and 30 journalists in an expedition to the site, an extinct volcanic uprising 3,000 to 5,000 meters under water.
“It could be a way of marking our territory, our own fishing grounds,” he said of his proposed facility. “We’ve learned our lesson.”
The facility will also serve as a refuge to Filipino fishermen in times of harsh weather or difficult fishing conditions.
The agriculture secretary said Duterte seemed “happy” with his proposal and that the latter agrees. Piñol told reporters he would assess, with inputs from marine experts and engineers, what the facility’s design should be, may it be a floating one or an oil rig.
It’s a big question though if this openness to Piñol’s proposal will persuade the president to actually fund the facility, order its construction and see its establishment through. Duterte has made no secret of his desire to keep China as a friend, going as far as inviting the People’s Liberation Army Navy to his home town Davao City recently and asserting that the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines must be dealt with bilaterally, blocking any influence or intervention from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The above bolsters cynicism as to what this move from Piñol, already a close ally and personal friend of Duterte, can really achieve. Given Duterte’s capitulation to China, even with a facility, can the Philippines really keep China away from Benham Rise?
Can pass, but not fish
Commodore Eduardo Guingona, undersecretary of the Bureau of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and a retired Philippine Coastguard official, said that China’s vessels by law can pass through the entire area of Benham Rise but can’t fish or extract resources.
It is important to note that as a whole, Benham Rise spans almost 25 million hectares – 13 million of which covers the extended continental shelf, while 11.4 million fall within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“It’s part of the right to [innocent] passage,” he said. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, passage is allowed to another territory as long as it’s not “prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.”
What China – or any other country – cannot do, however, is to explore and gather resources from any portion of Benham Rise, where the catch rate of tuna is considerably high.
Raffy Ramiscal, officer-in-charge of the Captive Fisheries division of BFAR, said the ridge lies along the migration path of tuna species such as Yellowfin and possibly even Bluefin, one of the most expensive types of tuna in the market, selling reportedly for as much as $1 million per 200 kilograms. Bluefin have been fished almost to extinction
The catch rate for billfish such as blue marlin is also high in the region. That is why Benham Rise is an important fishing ground for Filipinos – and it must remain that way, with no other nationalities allowed to tap the area’s marine and even energy resources, as Benham Rise also has potential vast methane hydrates.
“They cannot fish in Benham Rise,” said Guingona, who accompanied the government’s expedition to the region.
That line echoed Piñol’s defense of Duterte, when asked how he can reconcile his aggressive push for Benham Rise’s protection with the president’s seeming proclivity to submit to China. “The president never said China can fish in Benham Rise.”
Not just China
Even as the president has not allowed China to do this, however, his administration also faces the challenge of monitoring activities in the area’s vast expanse. Filipino fishermen are also wary of encountering boats or vessels from Taiwan, which is also accessible from Benham Rise.
Joy Paje, a member of the Samahang Mangingisda sa Benham Rise (Association of Filipino Fishermen in Benham Rise) alleged that the ropes used to support their fish aggregating devices or payaos have been cut off by some Taiwanese fishermen in various instances.
When the ropes are cut, the payao – which is supposed to attract smaller fish and in turn, lure bigger fish – is no longer usable.
“Out of 11 fish aggregating devices the government gave our group, only one is left,” she lamented.
Paje’s group assigned their members to act as rangers in order to help fend off foreign fishermen and keep watch over fellow Filipinos catching fish in Benham Rise. But this is not enough, as Paje said they are no match for the Taiwanese. “We need Coast Guard patrols here. It will be better if we have more of them. Filipinos cannot tell other fishermen to just go away; we get scared.”
She added that if the facility is built, however, it would show others that Benham Rise belongs only to the Filipinos. “They will know that Benham Rise is not part of their territory.”