POSTSCRIPT / March 16, 2017 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Are we losing Phl by bits and pieces?

IT IS high time President Rodrigo Duterte told the nation the full details of whatever deal(s) he has made with China regarding Philippine maritime areas.

It is disconcerting to see bits and pieces of the archipelago being gobbled up by the Chinese dragon — with no serious objection from President Duterte – from features in the West Philippine Sea to, now, the Benham Rise continental shelf on the Pacific Ocean side.

Are Filipinos slowly losing territory to the Chinese by default or timidity? Out of patriotic duty, or if only in the spirit of transparency, the President should take time to tell the people what is going on.

The President might also want to consult or coordinate with his top defense and diplomatic officials – as well as seek the advice and consent of the Senate – in the conduct of foreign relations. Being a novice, his sailing solo is fraught with risks.

Reacting to a revelation by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that Chinese vessels have been spotted in Benham Rise doing oceanographic surveys, the President doused Monday the alarming news by saying he had given China permission to do that.

Would he have revealed that detail if the Chinese snooping around Benham Rise were not exposed? How was the President’s permission sought and given, and for what stated purpose, location and duration? The paucity of details raises more questions.

How come Beijing claimed its vessels were just passing through, exercising their freedom of navigation and/or their right of innocent passage? For several months in the same area? And why seek permission if the Philippines does not have exclusive rights over Benham Rise?

With no details to go by, one wonders if delicate Philippine interests have been compromised by Duterte’s dealings with the cunning neighbors to the north.

Whatever is the status of the strategic land-grabbing around the archipelago – possibly soon to include some parts of Benham Rise facing the United States mainland?  – there is need for a clear declaration by President Duterte of his policies, intentions and commitments.

• Phl rights over Benham Rise exclusive

THE UNITED Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf recognized in 2012 the sovereign rights of the Philippines as a coastal State over the 13-million-hectare Benham Rise extending eastward off Isabela and Aurora.

A continental shelf is the submerged prolongation of a coastal State’s land territory — the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to 200 nautical miles where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.

There are no other coastal states in the Pacific claiming Benham Rise, certainly not China which is on the other (west) side of the Philippines.

After Lorenzana’s exposé, Duterte ordered the military to assert the country’s rights over Benham Rise. The defense chief directed the Navy to drive away Chinese seismic survey vessels, adding that the government will build structures to mark off the areas being eyed.

The Chinese foreign ministry, meanwhile, said that the Philippines cannot claim Benham Rise as its own territory despite Article 77 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea saying that a state has sovereign rights over its continental shelf.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has explained that sovereign rights do not equate with sovereignty. Under UNCLOS, the sovereign rights of the coastal State over the continental shelf are for “exploring it and exploiting its natural resources.”

These rights are exclusive. If the coastal State does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources, no one may undertake these activities without its express consent. Is Duterte’s permission to the Chinese vessels considered to be that consent? Clarification is needed.

It is noteworthy that under Article 77, the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the continental shelf do not depend on its occupation, effective or notional, or on any express proclamation.

• China banned from gas, oil exploration

CHINA cannot explore for oil and gas in the mineral-rich Benham Rise, according to Carpio. (He was part of the legal team that presented the Philippine case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2015.)

Carpio said: “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) over Benham Rise because we have exclusive rights to explore and exploit the oil, gas and other mineral resources in Benham Rise which has been confirmed by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as part of the Extended Continental Shelf of the Philippines.

“Other states, like China, have the right to conduct in Benham Rise (1) fishery research because the fish in the ECS belongs to mankind; (2) surveys on water salinity and water currents because the water column in the ECS belongs to mankind; and (3) depth soundings for navigational purposes because there is freedom of navigation in the ECS.

“If the Chinese vessels were looking for submarine passages and parking spaces, that would be part of freedom of navigation and the Philippines has no reason to complain.

“If the Chinese vessels were conducting seismic surveys to look for oil, gas and minerals, then they could not do that because UNLCOS has reserved the oil, gas and minerals in the ECS to the Philippines.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 16, 2017)

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