MANILA – Did the Philippines grill China on why a Chinese ship sailed for months near Benham Rise?
Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said the Philippines already asked China for a clarification. Manalo said it was "enough" that China said "they recognize" the Philippines' rights over Benham Rise.
Was China's explanation enough?
Journalists asked Manalo about this on Tuesday, April 4, during a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
Referring to China, veteran journalist Gabby Tabuñar asked Manalo, "So you never pressed them on what they were doing there?"
Manalo replied, "Yes, in fact we did, and their reply was they recognize our sovereign rights. And well, I think that's quite enough because it does indicate that they realize that they would need permission to be there, in certain parts of Benham Rise."
The Chinese ship was spotted near Benham Rise from November 2016 to January 2017. Its presence there stirred controversy because President Rodrigo Duterte said there was an agreement for China to visit Benham Rise.
The Philippines has the exclusive rights to explore and exploit Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare underwater plateau said to be rich in resources such as natural gas.
Manalo earlier said the Philippine government didn't issue a permit to China, and that Duterte issued only a general invitation for other countries to "visit the Philippines."
Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, however, said the ship named Xiang Yang Hong 03 was reported by Chinese media to have conducted a "world record-setting voyage, taking samples of the seabed, conducting a benthic survey, and taking samples of the water."
'Why should that be enough?'
In the FOCAP forum on Tuesday, Jiji Press reporter Dana Batnag also asked Manalo about China's presence near Benham Rise.
She referred to China's statement that it respects the Philippines' rights. "So simply saying that 'we recognize your rights,' why should that be enough for us?"
"Well, we asked them to clarify, and that was their response," Manalo said.
Batnag replied, "But it was not a clarificatory response. Why should we accept that?"
Manalo said: "Well I think you should ask China. We asked them for that, and that's what they told us. But you know, they have consistently applied for permission, and… as I said, in many cases, they have already been denied. So in this particular case, as I said, we were investigating, and that was how they replied."
Toward the end of the FOCAP forum, Tabuñar, who emceed the event and was seated beside Manalo, asked another question that made other journalists nod.
Turning to Manalo, Tabuñar asked: "You know, I'm bothered, Mr Secretary, about your answer about Benham Rise. I can't get it out of my mind. These Chinese are there, and you ask them, what are they doing there? And all they say is, 'We respect your sovereignty.' What are they doing? Aren't you curious?"
"They may be laying mines, they may be fishing, they may be measuring. Aren't you curious as to what they're doing? Aren't you curious? If somebody comes within your home, your territory, and they say, 'O nandito ako (I'm here), because I recognize that this is yours, your sovereign rights.' And after that, no more," Tabuñar said, as other journalists laughed.
The veteran journalist said, "I want to ask, 'Ano'ng ginagawa mo rito?' (What are you doing here?)"
Manalo answered, "Well yes we're curious, that's why we asked." – Rappler.com