Is Benham Rise China’s Next Target?

CHINA’S hunger for power and control knows no bounds. 

After taking full control of West Philippine Sea, China is now training its sights on Benham Rise which has already been unequivocally declared as part of our country’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone by the United Nations.

The obvious attempt by China to annex our territory showed that it is determined to grab whatever it can from our country despite previous friendly overtures by top Philippine leaders led by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Chinese ships have been spotted inside the area and no less than Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has expressed alarm over their motives on staying in Benham Rise.

Lorenzana said Chinese ships were monitored in recent months at locations near the Philippines, with a warship spotted 70 miles off its western coast in the South China Sea and survey ships seen to the north and south of its eastern seaboard.

He said satellite imagery provided by allies had tracked Chinese vessels for three months last year in Benham Rise, a vast area the United Nations has declared to be part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.

Their presence came several months after taking full control of the West Philippine Sea where they have established and constructed structures designed for military and naval use.

Benham Rise is an underwater landmass 250 kilometers (155 miles) off the east coast of the main island of Luzon.

In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Philippines' undisputed territorial claim to Benham Rise.


Marine Wealth

Benham Rise contains over 50 species of fish and tiered plates of corals. 

The bank itself is a spawning ground for the high-priced Pacific Bluefin tuna, a migratory specie that teems in the United States and Mexico but comes back to spawn in the western Pacific, particularly in Benham Rise.

Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of the unexplored seamount, is one of the traditional fishing grounds of coastal dwellers on the northeastern coast of Luzon.


China’s Stand

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said in Beijing that the Philippines cannot claim the mineral-rich Benham Rise as part of its territory despite the area’s being within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as recognized by the United Nations.

While acknowledging the 2012 approval by a UN commission of the Philippines’ submission in 2009 regarding the limits of its continental shelf in Benham Rise, he said, the approval “does not mean that the Philippines can take it (Benham Rise) as its own territory.”

It was the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which decided on the Philippines’ submission.

Citing international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Geng said a coastal state’s rights over a continental shelf do not affect the legal status of the superjacent waters or of the air space above those waters, freedom of navigation and innocent passage.

The UN confirmed that Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare area off the coast of Aurora province, is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf and territory. Benham Rise has untapped natural resources, including rich mineral deposits, and is said to be wider than Luzon, Samar and Leyte combined.

Geng confirmed the reported presence of its ship in eastern Philippines last year but maintained that it was simply exercising freedom of navigation. 

He added that China’s ships had every right of freedom of navigation in those waters, and its research ships did pass through seas northeast of Luzon Island last year.

“But this is purely carrying out normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage, and there were no so-called other activities or operations,” Geng said.


Surveillance Ships 

Lorenzana insisted that Chinese surveillance ships had been seen in Benham Rise, which is believed to sit atop lucrative oil and gas deposits. 

"The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed," Lorenzana said.

"I have ordered the Navy that if they see this service ship this year, to start to accost them and drive them away" Lorenzana said.

He suspects that China may be "looking for a place to put submarines."


Japanese Warship

Japan plans to dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May, in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two.

China claims almost all the disputed waters and its growing military presence has fueled concern in Japan and the West, with the United States holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.

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Tuesday, 19 February 2019
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