Expert explains why Benham Rise isn't Philippine 'territory'

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 15 2017 07:43 PM

This photo was taken during a marine expedition at Benham Rise last May 26, 2016. Branching corals contribute to the complexity of the reef. Oceana Philippines

MANILA – Benham Rise is not part of Philippine territory, and might not be used in any impeachment case against President Rodrigo Duterte, a lawmaker said.

"Benham Rise, hindi po teritoryo iyan…it is extended continental shelf. We only have sovereign rights, [which] means exclusive right to explore and exploit [resources],” said Kabayan Party-list Rep. Harry Roque.

However, asked if a joint exploration of the area with China can be used to spark impeachment proceedings, Roque said he is not sure.

"I’m not ready to declare that the possibility of joint use…is impeachable. There has not been jurisprudence [on the matter]," he said. Among the grounds for impeachment are culpable violation of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust, and treason.

However, “the closest” that can be leveled against the president might be culpable violation of the Constitution, he said.

“The closest is culpable violation of the Constitution, exclusive economic zone, though stated in territory…hindi naman sinasabi na impeachable. We don’t know what happened [with the Chinese ship in Benham Rise],” he said.

Roque also stressed that if the Chinese ship reportedly spotted in the area was merely sailing through, then the Philippines cannot complain to its neighbor. 

However, if the ship was surveying and prospecting for oil, then that is a violation of the Philippines’ sovereign rights.

Roque reiterated his earlier legal opinion that sovereign rights may be the subject of joint exploration. This was the decision of the Supreme Court in the case La Bugal-B’laan v. Ramos.

"Foreign corporations may act as contractors, providing capital, technology, and technical know-how and managerial expertise, while the government exercises control and supervision over the operation under FTAAs (Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement),” he said.

The president only needs to sign the FTAA, which should be submitted for Congress review, because it is an issue of policy whether or not government should allow a foreign company or country to join the Philippines in exploring for resources.

Separately, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate warned against China's presence in Benham Rise, saying that the Chinese already used the same modus at the Spratly Islands, using as cover the Joint Marine Seismic Understanding (JMSU) it entered with the previous Arroyo administration. 

“Under JMSU, China is supposedly just surveying the Spratly area for natural gas but later it already claimed the area as theirs and even built permanent structures in our territory,” Zarate said.