Duterte Bans Foreign Research Vessels at Benham Rise

Philippine flag planted at a deepwater reef, Benham Rise (file image courtesy Oceana)

By The Maritime Executive 02-06-2018 05:20:00

On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called for a "cessation" to all foreign research activity at Benham Rise, a region on the Philippines' continental shelf that is believed to have oil and gas potential. Further reports indicated that Duterte called for Philippine forces to "chase away" foreign research vessels. 

Spokesman Harry Roque later clarified that the directive is not a formal ban but rather a revision of the application process for foreign research missions. It does not appear to have an immediate effect, as there are no known foreign research vessels operating in the area. "Is anyone going to be affected by this? The answer, indicated by the subsequent walk-back, is apparently no. Even the reported Chinese [mission] appears to have already completed its principal research activity," commented Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs. "As for the reported order to "chase away" foreign [research] vessels . . . was there anything to chase away in the first place?" 

The presence of a Chinese survey ship at Benham Rise last year prompted concerns that China intended to usurp new areas within Philippine waters, in addition to the Philippine-claimed land features that China has occupied and fortified in the Spratly Islands. Despite these concerns over Chinese intentions, Duterte's administration recently gave the green light for the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology (oceanography) to conduct research on ocean currents at Benham Rise. The project was part of a partnership with researchers from the University of the Philippines and was expected to last for 3-6 days within Philippine waters. The vessel tapped for that mission - the Ke Xue San Hao - arrived in the Philippines on January 22 to begin work; as of February 6 she was moored at Qingdao, China, indicating that her role in the project has finished.

An opposition lawmaker, Representative Edcel Lagman, called for Duterte to go further than a research vessel ban. Lagman proposed that the government should require that "data so far gathered must be confiscated by or turned over to the Philippine government" in order to prevent unauthorized foreign use. Separately, Representative Carlos Zarate reminded the administration of a "disadvantageous" precedent from 2004, in which data from a joint Chinese-Philippine seismic campaign in the South China Sea was used in China's program to "annex and militarize" land features in the area. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled last year that China's claims to the South China Sea have no legal basis, but China has generally disregarded this opinion.