President Rodrigo Duterte is demanding a stop to all foreign explorations at a vast underwater plateau in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines where Chinese access caused controversy, officials said Tuesday.
But a lawmaker who was among the first to draw attention to Chinese exploration in the Benham Rise (also called the Philippine Rise) said the order came a little too late because Beijing had already completed its research mission.
“Let me be clear about this: The Philippine Rise is ours, and any insinuation that it is open to everybody should end with this declaration,” Agriculture Secretary Manuel Piñol quoted Duterte as saying.
The president apparently was upset because a low-level diplomat from another country, which Piñol did not name, had suggested that the territory did not belong to the Philippines.
While no names were mentioned, a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing stressed last year that the Philippines could not claim the area as its territory.
Piñol said Duterte had ordered the armed forces to escort any foreign ships that may stray into the area, a 25 million-hectare (61.7 million-acre) seismic undersea region located about 250 km (160 miles) east the main Philippine island of Luzon.
The Philippines has been conducting studies in the potentially mineral rich region, which the government officially claimed in 2012. Last year, Manila designated the area as a “protected food supply exclusive zone.”
Scientists from the United States, Japan and South Korea have surveyed it many times. Since 2000, the Philippines has granted about 30 foreign licenses to survey the area.
The Philippine Rise is different from the South China Sea, an area to the west of the Philippines that is claimed in whole or in part by the Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
On Tuesday, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said that, from now own, only Filipinos would be allowed to conduct research, lay submarine cable and explore and exploit national resources in the area.
“All licenses for scientific research are deemed cancelled,” Roque said, noting the foreign office had informed him that all licenses had already been concluded.
He said the area was exclusive to the Philippines, although the country would subscribe to international convention that everyone was entitled to freedom of navigation.
“So navigation can proceed but, henceforth, no scientific research will be allowed and no other foreign entity will be allowed to explore and exploit for natural resources in the area,” Roque said.
He quoted Duterte as telling cabinet officials, “We don’t need foreigners to assist us in getting our fish in the Philippine Rise.”
Opposition Rep. Gary Alejano, a former Marine captain, said Duterte’s apparent knee-jerk reaction did not matter because it came two days after a Chinese research ship completed its mission in the territory.
“The decision is therefore rendered insignificant,” Alejano said, clarifying that the opposition was not asking for a total end to marine scientific research in the area, but rather for the government to regulate activities.
“What we are demanding instead is careful consideration and prudence in granting permits with constant regard for our national security,” Alejano said.
“As I have repeatedly forwarded before, what we need is a clear foreign policy direction with China which will guide the actions and decision-making of all concerned agencies of government,” he said.