Sunday, June 13, 2021

 China Lusting Benham Rise

The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs announced that China is seeking permission to conduct hydrographic surveys of the Benham Rise, an underwater plateau about 150 nautical miles to the east of the northern Philippine island of Luzon. Over the past month, a string of reports indicate that China may have already been surveying these waters without the permission of the Philippines, which has exclusive economic rights over the area. While survey activity may point to Chinese economic exploitation of the potentially resource-rich plateau, it could also indicate preparation for submarine operations in a future Western Pacific clash.

In early March the Philippines Defense Minister revealed that a Chinese survey ship was found in the rise. He further revealed that there had also been possible survey operations over a three-month period last fall and that the Philippines had sent China a dozen diplomatic protests over the issue.

The Philippines won U.N. recognition of Benham Rise as part of its continental shelf in 2012, granting it exclusive economic rights beyond the 200 nautical miles typically granted coastal states. Located some 150 nautical miles east of the Philippines, the area is not part of maritime disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. However, since reports of the Chinese survey ships resurfaced in March, the Philippines increased patrols efforts by its navy and coast guard to protect its claims over the region.

China’s reaction to the reports and accusation was surprisingly conciliatory and went to pains to highlight positive Sino-Filipino relations and make assurances that it had no designs on the rise. A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that, “the Chinese side fully respects the Phillippines’ rights over the continental shelf in the Benham Rise. There is no such thing of China challenging the Philippines’ rights.” She went on to assert that the survey vessel was exercising innocent passage and freedom of navigation consistent with the UN Law of the Sea and had not conducted survey activities in the area.

While circumstantial evidence that China has been surveying the area is strong, admitting to it would put China in a difficult position. If the surveying was for commercial exploitation, it would violate the Philippines’ economic rights that China says it recognizes. If the surveying was for military purposes, then it would weaken China’s position against similar surveys that the U.S. Navy conducts in the South China Sea, which China claims violate UN Law of the Sea prohibitions against certain military activities in other states’ exclusive economic zones.

Yet another possibility raised by the Philippines Defense Minister is that the surveys might also be to support Chinese submarine operations. The zone could play a critical role in a potential clash with the United States.

The Benham Rise is directly south of the eastern approaches to the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines, which is the main access route from the Western Pacific Ocean to the South China Sea. In a conflict, control of that strait would dictate whether China’s South Sea Fleet could “break out” of the South China Sea into the Western Pacific to the waters between the first and second island chains, or if the U.S. Navy could move forces into the South China Sea to conduct its own combat operations.

Claim: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed the “entire eastern Philippine Sea and Benham rise” as “Chinese territory.”

Known opposition Facebook page “Silent No More PH” posted the claim on November 9. The post garnered 1,700 reactions, 480 comments, and 1,500 shares.

The full quote reads:

We are the first sovereign state who did scientific research and completely mapped the Benham Rise therefore in behalf of the People’s Republic of China, I, Wang Yi, foreign minister, claim the entire eastern Philippine Sea and declare Benham Rise as Chinese territory.

It was captioned, “Dear Fellow Filipinos, Made possible with the all out support of traitor Katay Digong! Dati WPS, ngayon pati Benham Rise! Kailan pa kayo magigising sa bangungot nito?” (When will we wake up from this nightmare?)

The claim was also posted by Facebook user Mariz Cruz on the same date.

Readers also sent this claim to Rappler for verification.

Rating: FALSE

The facts: There is no such quote from Wang.

A foreign minister or secretary’s statements are deemed to reflect a country's position on issues. Therefore, any declaration should be supported by official documents, press releases, or reports.

This supposed declaration by Wang cannot be found on the website of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the website of the Chinese embassy in the Philippines, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs website, nor in any news report from credible news organizations.

Rappler has sent an email to the Chinese embassy to further verify the supposed quote, but it has yet to reply.

Silent No More PH did not link the quote to a source or document.

Rappler asked Silent No More PH and Mariz Cruz about the source of the quote, but they have not responded as of posting time. Commenters in Silent No More’s post also asked them about the source of the supposed quote, but the page has yet to reply.

The Philippines and China signed 3 agreements during Wang’s recent visit to Davao on October 29. While there is no mention of maritime issues in the agreements, Wang said the two countries can “shelve differences and pursue joint development” in the West Philippine Sea.

Benham Rise, which is not a disputed area, was not reportedly discussed during Wang's trip. The government permitted a 33-day maritime research of Chinese scientists, which started on January 24, covering the "eastern side of Luzon and Mindanao" including Benham Rise.

A 13-million-hectare underwater plateau, Benham Rise is located off the coast of Aurora. The United Nations in 2012 considered it part of the Philippines' extended continental shelf. (FAST FACTS: What you should know about Benham Rise)


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