Updated 23:01 PM PHT Tue, March 14, 2017
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — A Senate bill has been filed creating a body to study, develop, and secure the country's sovereignty over Benham Rise, even before the latest issue over China's recent remarks grabbed headlines.
Senate Bill No. 312, which will establish the Benham Rise Development Authority, has been pending at the committees on Economic Affairs and Finance since Senator Sonny Angara filed it on July 4, 2016.
"The authority shall be the lead agency in conducting scientific research and exploration and shall secure the rights of the State over the area," the bill read.
Angara on Tuesday called on the government to fast-track the bill's passage to assert the country's sovereignty over Benham Rise, an undersea plateau l135 miles off the coast of Aurora. It spans 13 million hectares and is believed to be rich in marine resources, natural gas, oil, and minerals.
"Benham Rise is undisputedly part of Philippine territory. We have the exclusive rights to explore and exploit its natural resources," said Angara, a former representative of Aurora province.
"There is a pressing need to scale up and sustain the scientific study and exploration of the undersea region in light of such unauthorized foreign incursion in our territory," Angara added.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said Chinese survey ships were reportedly spotted in Benham Rise.
The government has since expressed concern that China might be looking to build on the area, which is part of the country's exclusive economic zone.
Not PH territory?
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, also acknowledged that the United Nations recognized the Philippines' claim to the underwater plateau as part of its exclusive economic zone in 2012.
"But it does not mean that the Philippines can take it as its own territory," Geng said.
Lorenzana on Tuesday said China is "technically correct."
"Because the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) will only give you exclusive economic zone, it is not territory," Lorenzana said. An exclusive economic zone is an area 200 nautical miles from the country's coastline, to which only that country can conduct fishing, drilling, and other economic activities.
China admitted that its research ships recently passed through Benham Rise, but claimed "right of innocent passage," denying there were other activities that took place.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday said he does not want to get into a fight with China, and that the country will continue to pursue diplomatic talks with the Asian giant.
"My orders to my military? You go there and tell them straight that, this is ours but I say it in friendship," Duterte said.
"I cannot match the might of China," the President added.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard will be patrolling Benham Rise in May, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cdr. Armando Balilo told CNN Philippines' The Source on Monday.
Benham Rise was named after US geologist Andrew Benham, who first discovered it in 1933.
CNN Philippines' JC Gotinga, Ver Marcelo and Regine Cabato contributed to this report.