MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has banned all maritime exploration by foreigners at Benham Rise, the undersea plateau off the country's north east coast, after China recently carried out scientific research there.
Duterte made the declaration during a cabinet meeting Monday night, his spokesperson Harry Roque said on Tuesday.
Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Pinol quoted Duterte as telling the cabinet: "Let me be very clear about this: the Philippine Rise is ours and any insinuation that it is open to everybody should end with this declaration."
The United Nations in 2012 declared that the 13 million hectare Benham Rise, located off the eastern seaboard of Luzon island, was part of the Philippines' continental shelf. Last year, Duterte renamed it "Philippine Rise." The area is rich in fishing resources, local experts say.
Duterte's declaration came after the conclusion of all foreign research studies at Benham Rise, including one carried out by China, which began last month despite security concerns.
Critics who have expressed alarm at China's potential agenda at Benham Rise have reawakened the territorial dispute over the South China Sea, where Beijing has claimed extensive ownership, including areas the Philippines says come under its exclusive economic zone.
The Philippine government itself has previously expressed suspicion about China's intentions in conducting scientific studies in the area. Between 2000 and the present, Manila has approved just two of 18 research applications from China and denied 11. In contrast, the Philippine foreign ministry approved all 13 requests made by U.S. researchers and nine from Japan during the same period, according to Roque.
"Now all licenses for scientific research are deemed cancelled," Roque said. "...henceforth only Filipinos now can conduct scientific research and only Filipinos can explore and exploit national resources in the Benham Rise."
The sudden policy change follows a social media uproar on Monday after local media released fresh aerial images showing China's progress in building military installations in the South China Sea, where it has built at least seven artificial islands.
Critics have accused the Duterte administration of softening the Philippines' position in the South China Sea dispute, which has emboldened Beijing to continue its militarization in the area. Duterte, who came to power in June 2016, has also set aside Manila's arbitration victory in July 2016, when an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China had no claim to sovereignty over the disputed areas in the South China Sea.