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International relations

Benham Rise -- the New Frontier in China's maritime ambitions

An obscure seabed landmass has emerged as a new flashpoint with the Philippines

| China

A new flashpoint has emerged between Beijing and Manila, which threatens to introduce a chill into the increasingly warm bilateral relations that have developed under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Benham Rise, a vast undersea landmass located in the Western Pacific, is part of the Philippines' extended continental shelf, and located far away from the burgeoning conflicts nearer to China's coast in the South China Sea.

It lies thousands of kilometers away from the nearest Chinese coast, compared with around 900km for the Spratly Islands, where Beijing has raised widespread concerns by building military bases on man-made islands.

To the horror of many Filipinos, however, China has rapidly expanded its military and scientific expeditions in the area. Among the Philippine defense establishment and greater public, there is growing concern that the Asian powerhouse is now fixing its gaze on the nation's eastern waters.

Consequently, many senior statesmen and prominent experts are beginning to openly question the wisdom of Duterte's China-friendly policy, including his increasing reliance on Beijing's largesse for domestic infrastructure projects.

Duterte is beginning to realize how furthering the rapprochement with China that he has pursued since taking office in 2016 is far from an easy task. The economic benefits he has secured -- such as participation in Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative -- come at a political cost.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is reviving security cooperation with the Philippines and other regional partners. In a very public display of force, a carrier group led by the USS Carl Vinson visited Manila in February in the first such port call to the country since 2014, and is due in Da Nang, Vietnam, this month, the first since Vietnam War.

In 2012, a United Nations ruling granted the Philippines exclusive rights to develop seabed resources in the Benham Rise, which lies around 250km from its shore. Chinese scientists for years failed to secure Marine Scientific Research (MSR) permits due to their unwillingness to fulfill requirements set by Manila, specifically the prerequisite for collaboration with a local counterpart.

This year, however, the Duterte administration controversially granted a China-based institute MSR permits in the Benham Rise, while suggesting Chinese investments are necessary to developing the resource-rich area.

In a speech (Feb. 19) before an audience of Filipino-Chinese businessmen, with the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua also in attendance, Duterte went so far as quipping, "If you want, just make us a [Chinese] province, like Fujian."

His provocative remarks and soft-pedaling on China's creeping presence in Filipino waters have been met with massive public backlash. Adding to public anger was the news that China unilaterally named five undersea seamounts in the Benham Rise at the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), which oversees the naming of maritime features.

This raised concerns over the possibility that China will soon lay direct claim over features it claims to have "discovered" and resources in the vicinity. As a result, critics of the government's China policy have held public rallies, calling on Duterte to take a tougher stance against Beijing.

"Damn us! Are we this helpless?" exclaimed Senator Panfilo Lacson, a prominent independent legislator. "It's probably a matter of time before we see Chinese structures on more artificial islands [within Philippine waters]."

Influential statesmen and opinion-makers, across all branches of the government, have opposed the wisdom of granting China scientific permits in the Benham Rise. "We are trading away too much, too early and too soon in dealing with China," lamented Jay Batongbacal, the country's leading maritime law expert, who oversaw the Philippines' successful 2012 U.N. ruling case on the Benham Rise.

Some have even questioned the Philippines' plan to build and fund big-ticket infrastructure projects with Chinese assistance. They have instead called for greater cooperation with Japan, by far a leading source of capital as well as partner for infrastructure development in the Philippines.

"How can we expect China to abide by The Hague Arbitral Ruling [and respect our rights in the South China Sea]. If China is our biggest creditor, how can we tell China 'please comply with the ruling?'" warned Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, a prominent voice on territorial issues.

Critics of China believe that Japan and other major Western countries are better alternatives to China, which has had a controversial record of investments in the Philippines, mired in corruption and bidding anomalies.

Latest satellite imageries reveal that China has almost finalized the establishment of military facilities in its artificially created islands in the South China Sea. With Beijing consolidating its grip on the South China Sea, it's rapidly extending its naval footprint to the so-called Second Island Chain, which covers the Western Pacific.

Defense experts believe that the ultimate aim is to gradually push American naval muscle out of China's near neighborhood, while securing a firm grip on precious resources, including methane hydrate, believed to be in ample store in places such as the Benham Rise.

There is palpable fear in Manila that China is intent on deploying nuclear submarines, monitoring the movement of foreign vessels and warships, and laying claim to rich energy and fisheries resources in the area.

China's overt and aggressive display of territorial and maritime ambitions has triggered corresponding measures from its rivals and neighbors. The Philippines, for instance, is moving forward with upgrading its airstrip and military facilities on the Thitu Island, the second largest naturally formed land feature in the Spratlys, later this year. Thitu island is just a few miles from neighboring Subi Reef occupied and militarized by China.

Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the Southeast Asian country is also assessing granting Pentagon access and permission to develop military facilities close to the disputed waters. China has vociferously opposed any expanded American military presence close to the South China Sea, while threatening the Philippines against upgrading its outposts in the area.

Even Duterte is recalibrating his China policy. In various speeches, the Duterte administration also reiterated that Benham Rise belongs to the Philippines, while rejecting China's unilateral naming of seabed features in the area. Under Duterte's watch, China's investments in the Philippines have been minimal, at 1.61 billion pesos ($30.8 million), vastly paling in comparison with investments from Japan (31.48 billion pesos) and the U.S. (8.357 billion pesos). There are serious doubts as to whether China will ever make investments as large as it has promised.

Eager to buttress his patriotic credentials, Duterte has renamed the vast seabed area to "Philippine Rise", imposed new restrictions on granting MSRs to foreign entities, while instructing the Philippine Navy to establish a more permanent presence in the Benham Rise.

China's relentless march across the waters is beginning to galvanize more robust pushback at home and abroad. This will inevitably complicate, if not eventually torpedo, Duterte's efforts to repair and upgrade ties with Beijing.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author; his latest book is "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" (Palgrave Macmillan).

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