Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that President Rodrigo Duterte has been appraised by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. about how Benham Rise is different from the West Philippine Sea after the President showed his confusion over the two territories.
“I think he knows now. He had a briefing with Secretary Esperon, I think it was he who explained,” Lorenzana told Rappler on March 24.
Lorenzana said Duterte now knows that Benham Rise is outside the West Philippine Sea, on the other side of the country.
With a chuckle, he told Rappler, “Alam na niya na ‘yung Benham Rise nasa kanan, kabila.”
“I think na-mix up lang niya ‘yun. Na-mix up niya. Akala niya nasa South China Sea,” he added.
Rappler noted how critical this piece of knowledge is to Duterte and the Philippines because Benham Rise is not covered by China’s claim over the South China Sea. The United Nations has already awarded the exclusive sovereign rights to explore the 13-milion-hectare continental shelf to the Philippines.
Lorenzana’s report about a Chinese survey ship sighted in Benham Rise shows that they might be interested in the maritime area. This is especially after China said that the Philippines “can take it as its own territory,” despite the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf ruling over the area in 2012. China also said that it was “exercising navigation freedoms and the right to innocent passage only, without conducting any other activities or operations.”
However, Lorenzana said that the fact that the Chinese survey ship stayed in Benham Rise for around three months in 2016 does not qualify as “innocent passage.”
Duterte’s Benham Rise mix up happened during a press conference on Monday night, March 12, when a reporter asked him the said territory. Rappler noted that perhaps the President was tired after holding the conference for an hour and a half, at which point he was asked about Benham Rise, which he first misheard as “human rights.”
Rappler wrote that the first sign that Duterte was confused about Benham Rise was when he said this in response to the reporter: “Because they are claiming it, so I can undertand. You cannot also claim that because I’m claiming it. But let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time. Things are going great for my country.”
The reporter tried to explain to Duterte that the West Philippine Sea is different from Benham Rise, therefore not part of the UNCLOS ruling issued last July 2016, but Duterte replied: “My orders to my military is: You go there and tell them that this is ours but I say it in friendship.”
Asked what he’d do if China starts building on Benham Rise, it became clear that Duterte was indeed talking about the West Philippine Sea.
He said that he is confident that China will not start construction on Benham Rise, but added that the US “wants to pick a fight there.”