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Is it Scarborough Shoal all over again?

Chinese maritime activities within Philippine territory was again put to a spotlight because several Chinese vessels were spotted in the Benham Rise. The Benham Rise is a resource-rich underwater plateau located east of the Aurora province. A large part of it is well within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines while the remaining chunk was successfully claimed by the country in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The presence of China in the underwater plateau raised eyebrows not only from the Defense Secretary himself but also from members of Congress and ordinary Filipino citizens.

It is no wonder that the Filipinos are skeptical when it comes to Chinese maritime activities within the Philippine territories. As we all know, or ought to know, China, even with the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, still continued to implement the Nine-Dash Line in the West Philippine Sea which disrespected the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal and the rights of the Philippines in the contested waters. What is more appalling is the egregious justification of the Chinese Foreign Ministry that their vessels were just exercising freedom of navigation and the Philippines cannot claim the Benham Rise as its own territory. With this, the government is finally taking action with its plan to increase the patrol ships deployed in the area as well as adding a structure on the plateau.

China’s actions are reminiscent of what it has been doing for the past years, presence and then claim. Though it will be hard for them to claim the plateau, their presence alone signify interest whether it may be for the vast resources in the area or for military advantage. What is confusing though is the inconsistent approach of the Executive Branch with regard to the matter. Apparently, it is the President who agreed to allow Chinese research ships in the region. On the other hand, it is the Defense Secretary who expressed concerns and ordered the Navy to drive away these Chinese ships. Clearly, someone has not been informed.

Will the Benham Rise have the same fate as the Scarborough Shoal? Does the 50 billion dollar grant by China enough to compensate the opportunity that we will lose if Benham falls within Chinese hands? Only time will tell, or maybe the Defense Secretary as long as the President informs him of the matter.

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