Gov't to give PH names to Benham Rise features named by China

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 15) — The government will give Philippine names to undersea features in Benham Rise which now bear Chinese names, officials said. 

"Bahala kayo kung ano binigay niyo diyan basta kami magtatalaga kami ng Pilipinong pangalan (You can name it whatever you want, we will assign a Philippine name)," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a media briefing on Thursday.

The idea was first raised by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Wednesday.

"As for me I would also give these features Philippine names," he said in a text message sent to reporters. He said he will meet with National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. and other Cabinet members on how to deal with China's move.

When asked about Lorenzana's statement, Roque said assigning a Philippine name is a "sure" next step as the government objects to China's naming of four seamounts and a hill in Benham Rise, an undersea plateau 135 miles off the coast of Aurora province which is part of the country's extended continental shelf - giving it sovereign rights over the area.

He told CNN Philippines this is part of what the government plans to raise with the international organization that approved the Chinese names – the Sub-Committee on Undersea Feature Names (SCUFN) of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO – of which the Philippines is not a member.

Roque earlier said the Philippine Embassy in Beijing had "already raised our concern to China."

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang in a media briefing reiterated the Chinese government's respect for the "relevant rights enjoyed by the Philippines concerning the Benham Rise."

But when asked about the Philippines' objection to China's naming of Benham Rise features, he said he is "not aware" of such.

Esperon reiterated the government does not recognize the decision giving Chinese names to areas in Benham Rise because it "was made without due consultation with the Philippine Government."

The names were approved in 2016 and 2017. These are the Jinghao and Tianbao Seamounts located 70 nautical miles east of Cagayan province, the Haidonquing Seamount further east, and the Jujiu Seamount and Cuiqiao Hill in the northern part of the Luzon plateau.

Except for Haidonquing, the names are already included in the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), an internationally-recognized seafloor map of the world's waters.

As far as the SCUFN is concerned, decisions "are deemed as final and non-appealable," Esperon said.

Is it too late now?

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said any name given by the Philippines will just be a domestic name without the IHO approval.

"Parang yung case nung (Like the case of) West Philippine Sea and Philippine Rise, naming by us through an executive order, for example, will bind only the Philippines," he said.

The government calls Benham Rise, Philippine Rise. President Rodrigo Duterte named it through an executive order in May 2017 after Chinese survey ships were spotted there in March.

In 2012, former President Benigno Aquino III signed an administrative order naming the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as West Philippine Sea.

Batongbacal said the government could have named all undersea features in Benham Rise as early as 2008, when the Philippines filed its claim for Benham Rise. The United Nations in 2012 ruled the Philippines had sovereign rights over Benham Rise as part of its extended continental shelf.

Senior Associate Justice Carpio pointed out the Philippines "has the preferential right to name undersea features" within its exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf.

Diplomatic protest

Some senators believe the country should file a diplomatic protest against China, before the Asian giant can lay claim to Benham Rise.

"This time it warrants at the very least a diplomatic protest dahil hindi pwedeng hahayaan na lang yan (because we can't just let it be)," Senator Antonio Trillanes IV said in a statement.

He said the Philippines was "deceived" into allowing China to conduct a research in Philippine waters.

Senator Ping Lacson said this could just be the beginning of China's plans.

"Kung pinangalanan nila ng mga Chinese names yung mga seamounts hindi far-fetched na balang araw sabihin nila kanila na naman yun and mag construct na naman ng structures and create artificial islands," he  said.

Translation: "If they were able to give Chinese names to the seamounts it's not far-fetched they will lay claims and construct structures and create artificial islands."

Senate President Koko Pimentel however said he sees nothing wrong with China's naming of Benham Rise features. 

"Bakit tayo allergic dahil Chinese ang nagbigay ng pangalan? Kung Amerikano ang nagbigay ng pangalan, okay lang (Why are we allergic when it's the Chinese who gave names? When it's the Americans who do so, it's okay for us)?" Pimentel said.

"I don't see the problem. And I am sure even without reading the Convention, hindi ko pa nababasa, I'm sure no country has the exclusive power or right to name features, but sovereign rights, iba yun," he said.

Benham Rise, named after U.S. geologist Andrew Benham who first discovered it in 1933, spans 13 million hectares and is believed to be rich in marine resources, natural gas, oil, and minerals.