China: Research in PH not in Benham Rise

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Research cruise plan of Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to the UP Marine Science Institute. Circles are where instruments will be deployed for long-term monitoring and squares are stations where water profile measurements will be conducted. Blue line represents Philippine EEZ and white line the ECS. | Photo from UP MSI

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 7) — China said the research done in collaboration with Filipinos was done not in Benham Rise, adding the country respects the Philippines' rights entitled by law.

"I would like to point out that this joint research is carried out in waters under the Philippines' jurisdiction, but not in the Benham Rise," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said in a press conference in China on February 6.

Shuang said it conducted its research "to the east of the Philippine islands."

The University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI), however, earlier said the research was conducted in the "northeastern Philippines where the Philippine Rise (Benham Rise) is located."

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

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said they submitted the application for a scientific expedition to the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was approved by the Philippines.

"China respects the Philippines' sovereign rights to and jurisdiction over relevant waters and hopes to work with the Philippines to maintain the sound momentum of development in bilateral relations," Shuang said.

The statement came after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered only Filipinos can conduct research in Benham Rise. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, however, clarified foreign entities may still hold scientific research in Benham Rise, if they meet newly imposed requirements.

READ: Palace: No ban on foreign research in Philippine Rise

The Department of Foreign Affairs on January 19 said China was allowed to study the area since the team included a Filipino scientist on board and that they agreed to share data.

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

Shuang said the research vessel "Ke Xue" of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has already finished the joint maritime research with four Philippine researchers.

"The relevant scientific research data will be shared by relevant research institutions in China and the Philippines," he added. 

China's exploration of Benham Rise has drawn criticism, as it refuses to comply with the arbitral ruling on its rights in the disputed South China Sea.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio earlier said as long as China refuses to accept the ruling, the Philippines should deny China's request to conduct any marine scientific research in Benham Rise.

READ: Carpio: PH should refuse China's request for marine research in Philippine Rise

UP maritime expert Jay Batongbacal said a "mere assertion that the area 'is ours' is not reason enough" to withhold consent or disapprove maritime research applications.

Under the UNCLOS, reasons to disallow research include implications for the exploration and exploitation of natural resources; drilling into continental shelf, use of explosives, and the introduction of harmful substances into the marine environment, among others.

"A 'blanket' prohibition on (maritime scientific research or MSR) by 'foreign scientists' or 'foreign vessels' doesn't really make much sense. What it would indicate is a government unable or unwilling to manage both the risks and benefits of MSR," said Batongbacal, who is also the director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

The UP MSI, in an earlier statement, said international collaboration in these kinds of research are important as data and information from all countries involved "will enable us (them) to acquire a better understanding of what is really happening.

"Understanding the dynamics of these major ocean current systems is complex and requires extensive resources," the MSI statement read.

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