By Lucia Edna P. de Guzman
and Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral

Senate to tackle Benham Rise bill

Posted on March 27, 2017

A SENATE committee will hold a public hearing this Wednesday on Benham Rise, including a proposed bill on developing that area.

“We have found it prudent to conduct another hearing in order to paint a clearer picture of the facts as we explore long-term strategies to uphold and defend our sovereign rights over the Benham Rise,” Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate committee on economic affairs, said in a statement on Sunday regarding the Senate inquiry during the congressional break.

To be tackled in the hearing is Senate Bill No. 312, or the proposed Benham Rise Development Authority (BRDA) Act, which would seek to create an agency by that name on the watch of the National Economic and Development Authority. The proposed BRDA would then implement a development plan for Benham Rise that would be aligned with the Philippine Development Plan.

“The primary purpose of this hearing will be to craft a cohesive executive-legislative strategy for the long-term defense and development of Benham Rise,” Mr. Gatchalian said in his statement. “If the political opposition is expecting a political fault-finding mission, then they will be surely disappointed.”

Representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Department of National Defense (DND) are invited also to discuss the Chinese presence in the area last November as reported by Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana, among other matters.

This is not the only hearing on Benham Rise that could be held during the legislative break, as Minority Senator Antonio F. Trillanes IV had also filed a resolution calling for the Senate committee on defense to conduct a hearing on Benham Rise.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lorenzana has acknowledged, when sought for comment over the weekend, that Rodrigo R. Duterte has been clarified about Benham Rise northeast of Luzon, as opposed to the South China Sea on the opposite side of the Philippines’ main northern island.

Mr. Lorenzana also conceded some confusion on Mr. Duterte’s part when he answered questions about the Philippines’ maritime issues with China in a recent press briefing.

“Yes, medyo napagpalit niya (he mixed up the two),” Mr. Lorenzana said in a text message on Saturday when asked about the confusion over the two areas. “But now malinaw na (everything is clear to him),” he added.

Early this month, Mr. Lorenzana described the presence of Chinese ships at Benham Rise as “very concerning,” adding the vessels “sometimes” stayed for as long as a month last year in search of areas there to park their submarines.

But Mr. Duterte, in a media interview at Malacañang on March 13, had said he allowed the Chinese vessels there because of an “agreement” between him and Beijing. He also described the issue as “nitpicking” in a subsequent press briefing.

In response, China dismissed Mr. Lorenzana’s report, saying its ships were “exercising navigation freedoms and the right to innocent passage only” and it will not challenge the Philippines’ sovereign rights over the said waters.

To recall, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto C. Abella himself qualified in a separate news conference that Mr. Duterte was referring to Benham Rise when the chief executive made those comments.

“It was not named but as far as the way it was described, yes [he was referring to Benham Rise]” Mr. Abella said when asked to clarify Mr. Duterte’s remarks.

In the same text message over the weekend, Mr. Lorenzana likewise said the issue of Benham Rise has now become “moot and academic” after China publicly declared it respects the Philippines entitlements to the resource-rich waters.

A Philippine Navy warship last week had started patrolling on Benham Rise.