On Friday, the Philippines publicly disclosed that it had sent a warship to Benham Rise in the wake of revelations of Chinese activity there. The Philippine response is just the latest indication that tensions in the maritime domain and uncertainty about China’s intentions continue to bedevil the bilateral relationship.
Since coming to power last June, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been trying to improve his country’s ties with China as part of what his administration has termed a “foreign policy rebalance” (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s China-US Rebalance”). Though that has yielded gains on some fronts, the South China Sea disputes have continued to be an irritant in the bilateral relationship.
Earlier this month, things began heating up on Benham Rise, a large underwater plateau that lies mostly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and entirely within its extended continental shelf. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana disclosed that Chinese survey vessels had been conducting oceanographic research and were spotted in the waters of Benham Rise. That gave way to a back and forth between Manila and Beijing regarding the legal status of Benham Rise as well as what the Chinese vessels were doing in the area, which was further muddied by Duterte’s own remarks.
In response, the Philippines is now stepping up efforts to safeguard its claims to the area. On Friday, the Philippine Navy disclosed that it had sent the BRP Ramon Alcaraz – a former U.S. Coast Guard vessel – to patrol Benham Rise. Some local media outlets emphasized the fact that personnel on board the ship sang the country’s national them while patrolling the waters.
Thus far, Philippine defense officials have indicated that such efforts will become the norm from now on. Shortly after news of the patrol was made public, Lorenzana himself said that the Navy would henceforth “regularly patrol” Benham Rise due to the reality of recent Chinese activities and the fact that it was part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
Lorenzana also added that the next focus would be to have the area surveyed “to clearly determine its limits, depths, and coral formations.” The Philippine military has said that should Duterte and Lorenzana determine this to be necessary, the Philippine Navy’s BRP Gregorio Velasquez could be deployed for survey missions off Benham Rise.