News about Chinese ships surveying the waters of Benham Rise, located east of the northern part of the Philippines, has triggered a bit of panic in Manila’s political circles in the past few weeks.
Benham Rise was recognized by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2012 as part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf. It is largely an unexplored underwater plateau which some scientists believe has large natural gas reserves. It is larger than Luzon, the country’s biggest island.
The Philippine government had confirmed that Chinese vessels were spotted in Benham Rise last year, although Chinese officials denied that the ships were exploring the area. The Philippine defense secretary, however, was skeptical about this explanation and questioned why the ships stayed in Benham Rise for a few weeks instead of simply making an innocent passage. The Philippine foreign affairs department also revealed that it denied the request of the Chinese government to conduct scientific activities in Benham Rise several times in 2015.
It was the Chinese government which defused the controversy by assuring the government of President Rodrigo Duterte that it recognizes the sovereign rights of the Philippines over Benham Rise. But some Filipino leaders wanted to do more to assert the country’s ownership of Benham Rise such as renaming it into Philippine Ridge, planting a flag in the area, and conducting more sea patrols. A few years ago, the Philippines renamed the South China Sea into the West Philippine Sea to strengthen its claim over the disputed Spratly Islands and to expose Chinese “aggression” in the country’s territorial waters.
Thanks to the 2012 UNCLOS ruling, there’s no legal question about the exclusive sovereign rights of the Philippines over Benham Rise, and even China has publicly acknowledged this. Benham Rise is not part of the notorious nine-dash line. Therefore, the interest shown by China over Benham Rise is not necessarily bad and could in fact lead to an opportunity for the Philippines to explore and develop the regions near the underwater plateau.
Chinese attention over Benham Rise can perhaps force the Philippine government to conduct a comprehensive review of the country’s defense capabilities in the eastern corridor of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. For the longest time, security measures have been focused on the western part of the country, which is largely influenced by the maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Perhaps it is time to correct the imbalance by deploying more patrol boats and enhancing the defense structures near the Pacific Ocean.
Aside from boosting the security infrastructure in the eastern part of the country, the government should also look into the economic potential of developing the regions near Benham Rise.
The Philippines’ southern corridor is known internationally because of the Islamic separatist movement in Mindanao. But far fewer are aware that it has an eastern corridor. This refers to the rural provinces facing the Pacific Ocean. It includes Cagayan Valley, the provinces located on the eastern side of Sierra Madre, Bicol region, Eastern Visayas, and the eastern part of Mindanao. The country’s poorest provinces are located in this corridor and it is no accident that armed rebels seem to be proliferating here. Rebellion is often stronger in areas where there is rampant poverty.
If the western corridor of the Philippines is an economic hub – represented by Subic, Clark, and Metro Manila – the eastern corridor is a long stretch of undeveloped regions despite being endowed with natural resources.
Perhaps the renewed sense of nationalism over the issue of Benham Rise could embolden policymakers and economic planners to draft a masterplan on how to develop the provinces near the underwater plateau. How can Filipinos benefit from the mineral deposits contained in Benham Rise if there are no nearby adequate scientific facilities to start the exploration?
The Chinese motive in exploring Benham Rise may be unclear, but the Philippines should have a definite plan on how to efficiently secure, manage, and develop the areas surrounding the ridge. Otherwise, foreign powers like China will find it easy to invoke the underdevelopment in the area as a cover for offers of scientific assistance or economic exploration that could in fact further boost Beijing’s strategic objectives while undermining Philippine sovereignty.