The government might after all contest China’s naming of five undersea features in the Philippine (Benham) Rise after initially downplaying the issue.
At the hearing of the Senate committee on science and technology chaired by Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino IV on the Philippine Rise, officials from the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA) said they are urging the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to initiate the nullification of the Chinese names for the undersea features.
It was the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) that allowed Beijing to give Chinese names to five features in Benham Rise, now called Philippine Rise.
NAMRIA said China vio- lated certain rules in naming features under the IHO’s Sub-Committee on Undersea Features Names (SCUFN).
NAMRIA assistant director Herbert Catapang said the naming of the Institute of Oceanology Chinese Academy of Sciences (IOCAS) of the features found in a 13 million-hectare undersea plateau was not in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“The way the submitted data were collected is not in accord with the UNCLOS since China was not granted consent by the Philippine government to undertake hydrographic surveys within our maritime jurisdiction,” Catapang told the hearing.
He also said IOCAS did not consult with the interested parties in naming the features as strongly encouraged by the SCUFN.
Catapang also stated that apparently SCUFN violated its own Rules of Procedure, specifically Article 2.10 that states: “The Sub-Committee will not consider undersea feature name proposals that are politically sensitive.”
“We can consider these proposals as such considering our dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea and the result of the recent arbitral ruling on the South China Sea,” the NAMRIA official said.
The IOCAS reportedly discovered the undersea features in 2004 and proceeded to apply for their naming in 2014 and 2016.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. and lawyer Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea backed the proposal of NAMRIA.
Esperon, however, said President Duterte may also issue an executive order to name the features as it did with the Philippine Rise.
Officials also confirmed reports that IOCAS and apparently other Chinese agencies had been surveying Philippine Rise in the past without permits from the government.
Batongbacal said a Chinese scientific vessel has installed at least three instrument platforms in the eastern side of the country that measures salinity, temperature, currents and other aspects of the sea.
He said the data can be used for scientific and military purposes.
He also lamented the lack of available personnel to accompany foreign expeditions in the area as required by the government. Batongbacal cited a sixday Chinese scientific survey in which Filipino scientists took part for only three days.
“Let’s be honest, the reason why we’re here is because of the problem, the infraction on the western side (West Philippine Sea), so what’s happening in the eastern side is a bit alarming,” Aquino said.
Esperon said the Coast Guard is installing this year 10 sovereign buoys at the cost of P120 million around Philippine Rise to reiterate the country’s sovereignty over the area.
The funding is included in the 2018 national budget as approved by Congress.
Esperon and Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat also told the inquiry that the government is closely monitoring the passage of ships in the area, especially those that are suspiciously “loitering.”
They said some foreign vessels, including one of IOCAS, turned off their automatic identification system to avoid tracking.
Rear Adm. Erick Kagaoan, Chief of Naval Staff, said the Navy is doing its best to deploy assets to track suspicious vessels in the area.
At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said he was not aware of any Chinese research activities in Philippine Rise conducted without the presence of Filipino scientists.
“I do not know that as a fact. So, we’d be interested to know what the resource persons have to say,” Roque said at a press briefing yesterday.
“It could be that they were engaged in scientific research, it could be that their presence was not required because it was not a material step, it could be preparatory, I do not know. As I said, the researchers will have to be summoned,” he added.