NEW DELHI—Filipino scientists need not seek the government’s permission to conduct maritime research in Philippine Rise, formerly known as Benham Rise, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said on Wednesday night.
Roque issued the clarification after he was bashed online for his remarks during a press briefing, in which he said no one in the country had applied for a permit to study the continental shelf east of Isabela province, and that no Filipino could do so because of the research’s prohibitive costs.
His statement sparked sharp criticisms on social media after it was pointed out that Filipino scientists had been conducting research in Philippine Rise even without China’s help.
In Malacañang on Thursday, Roque sought to douse allegations that the administration was giving too many favors to China in letting it explore the Philippine Rise. He said three other countries had been allowed to conduct research in the undersea plateau.
Applications from the United States, Japan and South Korea to conduct research in Philippine Rise had been approved, he said, citing information from Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
“This hopefully puts to rest the issue that the current
administration is favoring China on the issue of Benham Rise,” Roque said.
In a lengthy post on social media, professor Jay Batongbacal, director of University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea, cited several all-Filipino research expeditions in the area conducted in the past decade by several government agencies.
Scientists from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and Department of Science and Technology had also worked with oceanographic researchers from several universities, including UP, De La Salle University, and Silliman University, Batongbacal said.
He scored Roque’s remarks as “a total sham meant to disempower and demean Filipinos and their capacity and capability as a people.”
Detained Sen. Leila de Lima on Thursday said she would file a resolution seeking an inquiry into the decision of President Duterte and Cayetano allowing China to explore Philippine Rise.
In a statement, De Lima also slammed Roque, who, “instead of defending our national sovereignty and national dignity … (has) time and again proven that his boss is owned and controlled by China.”
In a text message, Roque said his response to the issue should be seen in “its entirety.”
On Thursday, the Malacañang official said: “As Filipinos, we do not need consent to conduct scientific investigation in Benham Rise because it is subject to our sovereign rights.”
Philippine Rise is part of the continental shelf awarded to the Philippines by the United Nations in 2012. The award gave the country exclusive sovereign rights to explore the 13-million hectare undersea region believed to be rich in fish, minerals and gas.
The country’s decision to allow China to explore Philippine Rise raised concerns amid Beijing’s continuing militarization of islets and man-made islands in the South China Sea, including areas under the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The President has also been seeking to curry favor with China by setting aside, for the meantime, the international arbitral ruling in The Hague, Netherlands, that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea. —WITH REPORTS FROM LEILA SALAVERRIA AND CHRISTINE AVENDAÑO
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