Palace: No ban on foreign research in Philippine Rise

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This story was updated to include statements from several lawmakers.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 6) — The government is not banning foreigners from conducting marine exploration and research in the Philippine Rise as long as they get approval from the country's National Security Adviser.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque made the clarification in a press briefing Tuesday as he confirmed that President Rodrigo Duterte had taken back government permits issued to foreign scientists and researchers in the area.

"(Duterte) has caused the revocation of all licenses given to foreign entities to conduct scientific research in the Philippine Rise," he said.

The spokesman clarified that foreigners may still do research work in the area but they need to get approval from the National Security Adviser.

Roque did not explain the change in policy.

He confirmed that the Chinese ship Ke Xue which was doing a study in the Philippine Rise, also known as Benham Rise, had already left Philippine waters. He added that the results of the team's research would be given to Filipinos.

In a Facebook post Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol said Duterte announced his order at the start of a cabinet meeting on Monday.

"Let me be very clear about this: the Philippine Rise is ours and any insinuation that it is open to everybody should end with this declaration," he quoted the President as saying.

Piñol said Duterte also ordered the Philippine Navy to "chase out" any vessel fishing or conducting research in the 13-million-hectare area.

The Department of National Defense and the Philippine Air Force were also directed to check on the presence of foreign vessels in the Philippine Rise, the agriculture chief said.

The President's order effectively stopped Chinese research in the area.  The government had granted China a permit for the project in January.  It was set to end on February 25.

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

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the Philippine government also got requests from the United States, Japan and Korea to conduct research in the the undersea plateau. A French team likewise wanted to study marine life near Palawan, but its request was denied.

Duterte previously said foreign teams may study Philippine waters provided they follow the country's laws.

National Security Hermogenes Esperon Jr., meanwhile, said adding a new requirement for countries that want to conduct research in the area is merely part of the government's ongoing review of the process.

"It has been a process that has been going on. And just like any process pwede mong i-review and hopefully, gaganda 'yung process and hopefully, mas gaganda 'yung watch natin sa Philippine Rise [Just like any process, you can review and hopeful improve the process. Hopefully our watch on Philippine Rise will be better]," he said.

He said they are looking at improving the existing process to benefit the country.

"Remember you are allowing them inside your domain. So you may appreciate what they are doing or you may be wary of what they are doing. It's just natural kasi sovereign domain mo 'yan eh [because this is your sovereign domain]," he added.

He confirmed that China has already given to Philippine authorities data they gathered from their research.

Some opposition lawmakers wary of PH deals with China

Some lawmakers, however, have voiced their concern over the government's relationship with the Asian superpower.

Opposition lawmaker Akbayan Party-list Rep. Tom Villarin has even gone as far as accusing the Duterte administration of selling Philippine territory to China.

Villarin claimed it is a "glaring" fact that the administration has been selling the country to China in exchange for aids and loans.

"Itong glaring dismissive attitude parang walang pakialam ang Duterte administration [his glaring dismissive attitude makes it seem like the Duterte administration doesn't care ] with regards to what's really happening in the West Philippine Sea and now in the Benham Rise only shows that the policy for this administration is really the wholesale sale of our sovereignty to China," he said.

He added, Filipinos are made to believe these projects are forthcoming when it is not clear what the loans and agreements are.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman has meanwhile hit Duterte's order as "a farce."

He said if groups from China had already left Benham Rise before the President made the order, it means it is already moot.

"Kung wala na diyan e di  [If they're not there anymore] the supposed stoppage is academic. It's a farce," said Lagman.

He added, the Philippine government must be able to confiscate or ask for the turnover of data gathered by foreign countries in the Benham Rise to ensure foreign countries will not use them at the expense of Philippine security and development.

Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano also added the Philippine government should be careful when granting licenses to survey our territory-- especially with China, which he said has a history of grabbing Philippine islands.

Alejano said the government should be more transparent and clear in its foreign policy direction.

Sen. Loren Legarda, however, greeted Duterte's order with a friendlier tone.

Legarda, who heads the  Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Committee on Finance, said she will work with other lawmakers so scientists will be given resources for necessary research.

"I agree with and fully support the directive of the President  to give priority to Filipino scientists and researchers in exploring and developing the natural resources in areas  covered by our sovereign rights," said Legarda

"We have to protect and preserve what is rightfully ours under the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and our laws for our future generations,"  she added.

Against the law?

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said China can be stopped from research under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

"Under UNCLOS, the Philippines can validly disallow China from conducting Marine Scientific Research in our extended continental shelf in Benham Rise because China has refused to comply with the arbitral ruling of a tribunal created under UNCLOS," Carpio said in a statement.

The 2015 ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration favored the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea and Benham Rise. China refused to recognize the ruling, asserting its rights over the contested waters based on its nine-dashed line claim.

But Carpio said other member-states of UNCLOS cannot be stopped.

"(The Philippines) will be violating UNCLOS if it disallows other states," Carpio added.

Article 246 of the UNCLOS reads, "Coastal States shall, in normal circumstances, grant their consent for marine scientific research projects by other States or competent international organizations in their exclusive economic zone or on their continental shelf to be carried out in accordance with this Convention exclusively for peaceful purposes and in order to increase scientific knowledge of the marine environment for the benefit of all mankind."

Benham Rise, located 135 miles off the coast of Aurora province, is part of the Philippines' extended continental shelf and exclusive economic zone.

CNN Philippines' Ina Andolong and Joyce Ilas contributed to this story.