Rodrigo Duterte (C) stands beside missile tubes on China's guided missile frigate Changchun at the Davao international port, May 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Simeon Celi

After consolidating control over Philippine-claimed features in the South China Sea, China is now casting its gaze on the island nation’s eastern waters opening onto the Pacific Ocean.

Last week, Filipino Congressman Gary Alejano revealed in a privilege speech that the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) had approved a Chinese state-funded think tank’s request to conduct a scientific survey of the Benham Rise, a seismically active 13 million hectare underwater plateau.

As part of the agreement, China’s Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences (IO-CAS) will work with a team from the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute. Largely undeveloped, the marine feature is believed to be rich in natural gas, heavy metals, fisheries and other resources.

In 2012, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf granted the Philippine government’s petition that the Benham Rise be considered part of the country’s continental shelf, thus giving it sovereign rights over the vast maritime territory.

The designation means that although the maritime feature is not part of its national territory, the Philippines enjoys exclusive rights to the exploitation of its natural resources. Filipino fishermen have long sailed in Benham Rise’s waters.

Alejano and other critics have questioned the wisdom of allowing China access to the area, particularly considering recent developments in the South China Sea.

“We should be careful and prudent in granting any access to our waters, especially with China who is known to claim 80 percent of our [exclusive economic zone] in the South China Sea through its expansive nine-dash line [map],” he said.

Alejano questioned why a similar request by a French nongovernmental organization, Tara Expeditions Foundation, was refused, arguing that allowing the French group access to Benham Rise would be safer since France and the Philippines have no maritime dispute.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has defended the decision, saying it is based on existing laws which allow for foreign ships to conduct research in Philippine waters as long as there is a Filipino national aboard.

That didn’t satisfy critics who feel President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has frequently sacrificed national interests for economic benefits from China.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters, Thomas Peter

“Allowing a Chinese national think tank to conduct a so-called scientific research over Philippine waters, even with the participation of Filipinos, is careless and absurd,” Alejano said, particularly as China has recently shown “alarming interest” in Benham Rise.

In March 2017, the Philippine government announced that sent a note verbale to the Chinese government asking why there were Chinese survey ships in Benham Rise from July to December 2016.

China’s foreign ministry said the ships’ were in “innocent passage”, a claim rebutted at the time by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. He countered that “innocent passage” means crossing from point A to point B and not crisscrossing an area for several months.

In response, Lorenzana announced that he would increase military patrols in the area and move to construct territorial markers.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, February 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco 

In May 2017, the Philippine government rechristened Benham Rise, named after a US Navy officer who likely discovered the feature, as the “Philippine Rise” and designated the area as a “protected food supply exclusive zone.” It also prohibited mining and oil exploration in the underwater plateau.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a noted expert in the Philippines’ maritime claims in the South China Sea, described the Duterte government’s decision to allow survey ships to Benham Rise as “dumb.”

“China has squatted in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and refuses to leave despite the ruling of the UNCLOS tribunal. The Philippines would be dumb to grant China’s request,” he said.

The development comes as China tightens its grip over the South China Sea, including over Philippine-claimed features such as the Scarborough Shoal and Fiery Cross Reef.

As of December 2017, China had built structures on a total of 28 hectares in the Spratlys and Paracel Islands in a rapid militarization of the contested maritime area, strategic think tanks said.

The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US-based think tank, said that these structures included hangars, missile shelters, radar arrays, and others have been built on the artificial islands.

Chinese construction on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea. Photo: CSIS/AMTI DigitalGlobe/ via Reuters

Security analysts see the build-up leading to the possible imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that would consolidate China’s control of the South China Sea, comprising the so-called ‘First Island Chain.’ Some US$3 trillion worth of global trade passes through the waterway every year.

But Benham Rise’s potential importance to China is likely more strategic than economic. Astride the strait between northern Luzon and southern Taiwan, it is one of the main passageways for naval ships out of the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

Benham Rise is also situated in the center of the so-called ‘Second Island Chain’ that runs from the shores of Yokohama, Japan, down to the northeastern shores of Indonesia’s islands and bypassing the US military base at Okinawa that allows ships to potentially reach crucial US air and naval bases at Guam.

Filipino critics say surveying the features of Benham Rise could give China a new strategic advantage, as the waters of the Second Island Chain would give its ships and submarines ample space to maneuver, unlike in the cramped, contested and highly surveilled waters of the South China Sea.

With a government in Manila increasingly viewed as subservient to Beijing’s interests, the survey could not only open the Philippines’ eastern maritime area’s marine resources to possible Chinese mapping and exploitation, but also create a possible new great power flash-point close to home.

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