MANILA -- The territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea could flare up again after Chinese ships were found surveying a resource-rich area located within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
The vessels are believed to have been searching Benham Rise, 250km east of the island of Luzon, in the Philippine Sea. When reporters asked about the ships on Thursday, Philippine acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo avoided criticizing China by name. But he pointed out the area "is within the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines. Any ship would have to get permission from the Philippines if they wish to undertake research," he said.
The Philippine navy had detected Chinese survey ships in Benham Rise between July and December of last year, according to Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. He said March 9 that he received information that the Chinese were scouting possible submarine routes, and that he ordered such vessels to be intercepted.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang confirmed March 10 that Chinese research vessels passed through the waters, but said they were "exercising navigation freedoms and the right to innocent passage only, without conducting any other activities."
Lorenzana expressed doubts about this claim, arguing that the ships were seen sailing slowly and standing still for days at a time.
The Philippines is locked in a bitter dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal, located west of Luzon. If Chinese ships are indeed operating on both sides of the major Philippine island, the Southeast Asian nation could be facing a new maritime threat.
Concerns seem to be growing within the military. Lorenzana on March 14 said the Philippines will also start surveying Benham Rise for its exact size and potential uses. A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the country has a responsibility to protect its exclusive rights.
But Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is taking a more cautious approach. On Thursday, he met Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang in his hometown of Davao. Duterte applauded the stronger economic ties between the two countries and the two men reaffirmed the need to peacefully resolve conflicts, according to the Philippine government.
"We cannot stop China" if even the Americans could not, Duterte said in a Sunday speech. The Philippines would lose all of its military and policemen if it went to war with China and end up "a destroyed nation," he said.
He has secured large amounts of economic assistance from China by toning down territorial claims over the Scarborough Shoal. He is expected to pursue a similar policy on Benham Rise as well.
Beijing is working to boost ties with Manila, but shows no signs of curtailing its maritime expansion. The mayor of Beijing's administrative base for Scarborough Shoal announced that preparations to build an environmental monitoring station on the formations will start by the end of the year, Reuters reported on Friday.
The Philippine government has revealed that in May, the U.S. thwarted Chinese attempts to transport sand and building materials to Scarborough Shoal for reclamation work. Some within the government and legislature are bracing for new moves by China, and could direct their frustrations to Duterte.