UP maritime expert disputes Palace claim Filipinos can't afford Benham Rise research

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 24) — Filipinos can conduct their own research in Benham Rise – and have done it several times in the past – a maritime expert said.

In a lengthy Facebook post on Tuesday, Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, revealed several errors in the statement of Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque.

Roque on Tuesday said the Chinese were allowed to conduct research in Benham Rise because no Filipino could do it as it was an expensive undertaking.

"Presidential Spokesperson Roque's claim that Filipinos cannot afford to explore Benham Rise, that 'no one can do it', that the Philippines 'needs China' to do it, and 'only China qualifies' is completely wrong, based on ignorance, a serious disservice to Filipino scientists in particular and the Filipino people in general, and an over-exaggeration of China's potential role in Philippine ocean sciences," Batongbacal said.

READ: China allowed to conduct research in Benham Rise, Cayetano confirms

Roque also said China's research will give Filipinos "a better understanding of how we can better utilize the resources of Benham Rise," which the government calls Philippine Rise. President Rodrigo Duterte renamed it in May 2017 after Chinese survey ships were spotted there in March.

Batongbacal further said Filipinos have conducted surveys and research expeditions in Benham Rise since 2004.

The National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, conducted surveys in 2004 to 2008, and in 2010. Their findings were used to support the country's claim of sovereign rights in the Benham Rise.

"That was a Philippine vessel with full Filipino crew (mariners of the Coast and Geodetic Survey Division) funded completely by the Philippine government," he added.

Filipino geologists also produced academic papers and analyses that were used to support the country's claim.

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.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources under the Department of Agriculture has been annually conducting research and experimental fishing expeditions in the area over the past decade, Batongbacal added. Studies showed Benham Rise is a passage for large and rare tuna, which can command high prices.

Filipino divers were also the first to reach the Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of Benham Rise. "That's our 'Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon' historical moment," Batongbacal said.

Two oceanographic research cruises funded by the government and supported by Philippine universities gave the country initial glimpse of Benham Bank in 2014 and 2016. A third cruise is being planned for this year with an all-Filipino crew including Filipino scientists, marine science students, Navy and Coast Guard technical divers, and mariners.

"For government to say that Filipinos need China to explore Benham Rise as if there is no one else that can do it is both a brazen falsehood and a disservice to the hard work and dedication, the talents and capacities, of the Filipino scientific community," Batongbacal said.

"We are not a nation of beggars for small change, even that coming from a country as big and rich as China," he said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday said prior to the government's granting of permit to China, it has allowed U.S., Japan, and South Korea to study the Benham Rise.