CHINA’S CONTINUED reclamation in the South China Sea has eroded trust among claimants and could raise regional tensions, Southeast Asian foreign ministers said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte has ordered that any scientific exploration in Benham Rise, northeast of the Philippines, will now be exclusive to Filipino scientists, his spokesperson Herminio Harry L. Roque, Jr. said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

Mr. Duterte’s latest position on Benham Rise comes in the wake of an exclusive report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on China’s extensive fortification in the Spratly and Paracel Islands west of the Philippines. These developments were earlier cited by a report last December by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, dating the fortifications to 2017, Mr. Duterte’s second year in office.

Mr. Roque, however, attributed these developments in the disputed South China Sea to the time of Mr. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno S.C. Aquino III — who, on the other hand, had challenged China in an arbitral court that eventually ruled in the Philippines’ favor in July 2016, soon after Mr. Duterte assumed office. Mr. Duterte has set aside the ruling in his pivot to China.

In Singapore, the ministers from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) did not mention China by name in their statement after a one-day meeting.

But in a statement by Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, they “took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

China claims nearly all of the disputed waters and has been turning reefs and islets into islands and installing military facilities and equipment on them. ASEAN members Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam as well as Taiwan also have partial claims.

Following a meeting with ASEAN last year, China agreed to begin talks on a much-delayed code of conduct for the sea, which Mr. Balakrishnan warned would be a “complicated negotiation.”

“Territorial claims will not be resolved just because you have a (code of conduct),” he said.

“Second, there will be no shortage of very sensitive issues that will take a lot of innovation and imagination on the part of the diplomats, and ultimately an exercise of political will,” he told a press briefing.

ASEAN defense ministers also held a meeting in the city-state, the current chair of the group, including a special session with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan.

Regarding Benham Rise, Mr. Duterte’s spokesman said “all licenses for scientific research are deemed canceled, although all research activities in the area had already been concluded.” He also said Mr. Duterte wants Benham Rise to be called “the Philippine Rise,” as Manila renamed last year.

Whether foreign ships are still free to navigate the area, the spokesman said: “Well, of course, under UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) everyone is entitled to freedom of navigation because this is (the country’s) exclusive economic zone. So navigation can proceed; but, henceforth, no scientific research will be allowed and no other foreign entity will be allowed to explore and exploit our natural resources in the area.”

In a Facebook post, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol said Mr. Duterte had “ordered the cessation of all marine explorations and studies by foreign scientists and directed the Philippine Navy to “chase out” any vessel fishing or conducting researches in the 13 million hectare continental shelf east of Luzon formerly called the Benham Rise.”

In 2012, the United Nations declared Benham Rise, northeast of the Philippines, part of its continental shelf.

The area is roughly the size of Greece and believed to be rich in biodiversity and tuna. Scientists from the United States and Japan have surveyed it numerous times.

However, Chinese interest, including some 18 official requests in 17 years, has caused concern among Philippine nationalists mistrustful of its intentions after decades of disputes and perceived encroachments by Beijing in the South China Sea.

According to Mr. Roque, there were more than 30 permits issued to foreign research groups from 2000 to the present, and all of them have already concluded their exploration activities at Benham Rise.

Mr. Roque confirmed that China’s research vessel Ke Xue Hao has already left the Philippine waters after it concluded its research.

“The Chinese concluded the research. So now that everyone is done, only Filipinos can conduct research in the area according to the president,” the spokesman said.

Last month, it was Magdalo Party-list Representative Gary C. Alejano who disclosed that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had allowed the Institute of Oceanology of Chinese Academy of Sciences (IO-CAS) to conduct marine scientific research in the area.

Senator Paolo Benigno A. Aquino IV said he plans to pursue a Senate investigation by the end of this month.

“In a Senate hearing, our scientists and experts will have the opportunity to present their current findings and plans to study and develop the Philippine rise,” he said. — reports by AFP, Reuters, Arjay L. Balinbin and Camille A. Aguinaldo