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Tension mounts between Philippines, China over Benham Rise

A Philippine Coast Guard ship sailing along Benham Rise, off the east coast of the main Philippine island of Luzon. (AFP)
BAGUIO CITY: China’s recent naming of five undersea features in the Benham Rise has prompted the Philippines to deploy troops to its northern frontier.
Benham Rise is a 13-million hectare underwater plateau, potentially rich in mineral and natural gas deposits, located near Aurora province in Northern Luzon.
In 2012, the UN confirmed that it is part of the Philippines. It was later renamed Philippine Rise by President Rodrigo Duterte.
On Friday, hundreds of Filipino Marines arrived at Port Irene in Cagayan from Mindanao. From dealing with extremists in the southern Philippines, their new task is to protect Philippine Rise from any foreign intrusion.
The deployment of troops comes one week after Duterte ordered the cessation of all marine exploration by foreign scientists and directed the Navy to “chase out” any vessel fishing or conducting research in Philippine Rise.
It is the first time that troops from Marine Battalion Landing Team 8 have been deployed in Northern Luzon. They will be integrated into Joint Task Force Tala under the 5th Infantry Division.
Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat, Commander, Armed Forces of the Philippines Northern Luzon Command, told Arab News that this military deployment allows the Philippines to “promote and manifest our strong claims on the farthest islands of the northern frontier.”
Salamat stressed that it is not just troops he has at his disposal. “We are privileged to have additional platforms that include air and sea assets to be able to ensure regular maritime patrols in the Philippine Rise,” he said. “That is the marching order of the president: To secure our interests. We will continue to perform our mandated task, which is to protect our sovereignty.”
However, Salamat said that Marines would not be sent to secure Scarborough Shoal — an island group that was seized by China in 2012 that has long been a source of tension between the two countries. “That is a diplomatic issue,” Salamat said.
Duterte’s administration attracted heavy criticism when it was revealed that it had granted a request from China to explore the resource-rich waters of Benham Rise. But Duterte last week was unequivocal in his insistence that the Philippines had sovereignty over the region.
“Benham Rise belongs to the Filipino. We will claim exclusive ownership of the economic zones — 200 nautical miles,” he said.
“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.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement on Thursday: “We object and do not recognize the Chinese names given to some undersea features in the Philippine Rise.”
He added that the Philippine Embassy in Beijing had already raised Manila’s concerns with China.