Former SolGen: Naming Benham Rise features 'preparatory' to China claim

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 19) — China's move to name features in Benham Rise is preparatory to laying claim of the territory, former Solicitor-General Florin Hilbay warned on Monday.

"We should look at it as part of the larger attempt of China to name things that they think they own... These are preparatory acts in claiming ownership over the particular area," Hilbay told CNN Philippines' The Source.

China successfully named four undersea mountains and a hill in Benham Rise east of the country, which the Philippines has sovereign rights.

The names were reportedly approved by the International Hydrographic Organization and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO between 2016 and 2017.

Related: Gov't to give PH names to Benham Rise features named by China

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque earlier called on those concerned about the ruling not to be alarmist, even likening the naming of the islands to the naming of food like siopao and mami.

Malacañang Palace has since announced that it would not recognize the Chinese names and would instead give its own names to the features.

It also said the Philippine Embassy in Beijing was "considering a recommendation" to raise the matter to the international organizations which approved the Chinese names.

However, some government critics believe the move is too little too late, considering the Philippines approved a joint exploration with China in the area.

Hilbay also hit the government for being too "soft" in its approach against the eastern giant, which is also maintaining its claim over disputed islands in the South China Sea, to the west.

He suggested the Philippines should "consistently protest, build coalitions against [its] aggressive neighbor."

Any citizen could file a case at the Supreme Court arguing that a joint exploration with China in the South China Sea would be unconstitutional, Hilbay added.

"Our Constitution has provisions with respect to our exclusive economic zone, and you simply have to tie that up with our victory in Philippines vs. China," said Hilbay.

"Philippines vs. China" was a case the country won at the arbitral tribunal in The Hague. As the ruling did not recognize China's claim, the eastern giant expressed that it would not recognize the ruling, and continued building military structures on the disputed islands.

In the wake of warmer bilateral ties under President Rodrigo Duterte, the government is mulling a joint exploration with China in the area.

However, Hilbay argues that such an endeavor would give China an edge should it again claim the territory as theirs.

"For us to recognize, or to enter into a joint development agreement with them, would be to impliedly recognize their rights and to waive our win in Philippines vs. China," said Hilbay.

Hilbay was part of the legal team that raised the Philippine case against China at the arbitral tribunal.