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BENHAM Rise has been in the news lately. This is an undersea region as big as Luzon 250 kilometers east of Isabela 5,000 meters above the sea floor, and 3,000 meters below sea level. It is a seismically active region which, scientists believe, affected the Philippine Fault System to the west in 1990, causing the disastrous earthquake that hit Baguio City in that year.
But it is as a rich fishing area that Benham Rise has long been known for. Ancient Catanduanes people are said to have fished in the area long before the colonial period and they continue to fish there to this day. In 2008, the Philippines filed a claim for Benham Rise with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and the UN approved the Philippine position in 2012.
It is against this background that Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana said last Thursday that several Chinese ships, including a warship, were monitored by satellite to be sailing around the area for three months last year.
Considering our previous dispute with China over Scarborough Shoal just west of Zambales in the South China Sea, the secretary expressed concern that Benham Rise may become another problem area in Philippine relations with China.
The Chinese foreign ministry, through its website, said last weekend that its ships were only sailing through the maritime area. It acknowledged that the UN has approved the Philippine position that Benham Rise is well within the limits of Luzon island’s continental shelf. But it does not mean that the Philippines can claim it as its own territory, it said.
We hope the Benham Rise situation will not deteriorate into another dispute with China. The Aquino administration, we may recall, filed a case with the Arbitral Court in The Hague which eventually ruled in our favor against China’s claims in the South China Sea. But President Duterte believes it is best, at this time, not to press China and instead seek ways for the two nations to work together in mutually beneficial projects.
We just need to be vigilant against intrusions of any kind that may infringe on our fishermen’s ancient right to carry on with their livelihood in the rich maritime region and on our legal right to the area under international law.