PH denied China's applications for research in Benham Rise — DFA

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 29) — China had applied several times for a permit to conduct research in resource-rich Benham Rise since 2015, but these were all rejected.

"The usual reason for the denial is the non-involvement of Filipino scientist in the conduct of marine scientific research," an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said at a senate hearing Tuesday.

Maria Lourdes Montero, officer-in-charge of the DFA's Maritime and Oceans Affairs Office, explained that the government requires foreign research teams to include Filipino scientists in their work in the Philippines and in areas where the country has sovereign rights.

The United Nations has declared that Benham Rise, an undersea plateau 135 miles off the coast of Aurora province, is part of the Philippines' extended continental shelf where the country has the sole right to its resources.

"Exploration of our natural resources cannot be done under the guise of scientific research," Montero said.

She revealed that there are still pending Chinese requests for research in Benham Rise in the DFA, which grants the permits. Montero said she is not aware if China's recent activities in Benham Rise was part of any of these applications.

Chinese vessels were spotted in Benham Rise for months in late 2016 and early this year, according to National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon.

Read: PH, China exchange statements over ships spotted in Benham Rise

While foreign countries have right of passage and freedom of navigation in Benham Rise, he admitted "lingering in the area is not innocent passage."

China has admitted Chinese ships were in the area but only on innocent passage, saying it recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights over Benham Rise. Both Montero and Esperon said they had insufficient information to make a conclusion on Chinese activities during the incident.

Also read: China: We respect Philippines' rights over Benham Rise

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the committee on economic affairs, asked if there could have been a breach in protocol in the incident.

But Montero said, "breach may be a strong word because we don't have the complete details."

Esperon recommended the raising of the Philippine flag in the Benham Rise to affirm the country's sovereign rights there. He said President Rodrigo Duterte has already ordered the conduct of patrols in Benham Rise as discussed in recent national security council meetings.

The Senate committee on economic affairs is conducting hearing to consider the proposed creation of the Benham Rise Development Authority, which will study, develop, and secure the country's sovereign rights over the area.

Benham Rise, named after U.S. geologist Andrew Benham who first discovered it in 1933, spans 13 million hectares and is believed to be rich in marine resources, natural gas, oil, and minerals.