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Invitation to Let China Explore at Sea Risks Political Backlash in Philippines

FILE - Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a news conference on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations summit in Pasay, metro Manila, Philippines, Nov. 14, 2017.
FILE - Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a news conference on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations summit in Pasay, metro Manila, Philippines, Nov. 14, 2017.

A decision by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to let China do research on the Philippines' Pacific Ocean continental shelf raises the risk of a new backlash at home among Filipinos who already distrust the more powerful Beijing.

Duterte is allowing a Chinese vessel to examine Benham Rise, a 13 million-hectare plateau rich in minerals and undersea natural gas, this month and next for scientific research, officials from both countries say.

The president broke ice with China shortly after taking office in mid-2016. That overture eased a separate maritime sovereignty dispute that had bitterly divided the two sides since 2012. China pledged $24 billion in 2016 to help develop the relatively impoverished, militarily weaker Philippines.

Duterte also let Chinese research vessels work above Benham Rise in late 2016. When people found out months later, he took heat from opponents in the legislature and influential Philippine news media.

He faces another backlash now, scholars say.

“People are concerned that China is doing research for its own interest, definitely, and then of course if there are economic resources there that can be exploited, they will know that,” said Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman. “There’s big mistrust here about the Chinese.”

Sino-Philippine Cooperation

The Philippines is working together with China at Benham Rise on purely scientific research, Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said via the presidential website on January 18.

Philippine scientists must participate in the research, he said, and authorities in Manila must receive their findings.

Last year firms from Japan, a geopolitical rival of China and a big investor in the Philippines, as well as from South Korea, expressed interest in exploring Benham Rise. The feature is 35 meters below the ocean surface at its highest and believed rich in mineral and natural gas deposits. Other countries are welcome to join, the spokesman said.

“So science is science,” Roque said. “Science knows no nationalities. So, the quest for truth is all important. All countries that would want to conduct joint research with us in this extended continental shelf are welcome to do so.”

China’s foreign ministry said the two sides would work together.

“We welcome Philippine scientific research institutions' participation and would like to work with them to advance maritime practical cooperation in marine research and other fields so as to create a favorable environment for the sound, steady and sustainable development of bilateral ties,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news conference in China Jan. 16.

Fear of going too far

The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved a Philippine claim to Benham Rise in 2012. China’s foreign ministry has said the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea lets it freely pass over the feature.

Manila also won a world arbitration court verdict in mid-2016 against Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea. China, the Philippines and four other governments contest that waterway, which is prized for fisheries as well as fossil fuels.

China rejected the ruling but has soothed rival claimants in Southeast Asia with aid and investment.

That outcome worries Filipinos about China’s endgame at Benham Rise. Their traditional military ally the United States has taken a back seat in the Philippines as Duterte seeks tighter bonds with China.

But many Filipinos, including much of the armed forces, still favor their former colonizer Washington over a relatively unknown Beijing.

Duterte pledged last year, after taking heat over the earlier Benham Rise incident, to bulk up nine Philippine holdings in the Spratly Islands, part of the South China Sea that Beijing calls its own. He held onto ties with China while cooling tempers at home.

China as a neighbor

Joint exploration at Benham Rise gives China a chance to prove itself a reliable partner in looking for minerals, said Fabrizio Bozzato, a Taiwan Strategy Research Association fellow specializing in East Asia.

China is working in the same spirit with other Asian countries. China is leasing a seaport in Sri Lanka for 99 years, for example, and the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corporation has agreed with Vietnam's largest oil producer, Petrovietnam, to look together for energy reserves in the shared Gulf of Tonkin.

But the project at Benham Rise could also become a “Trojan horse” with Beijing declining to share resources and leaving Manila no way out, Bozzato said.

“The Filipinos have valid reasons to be angry about Duterte’s decision and deeply concerned about the consequences of such a decision,” he said.

Duterte’s public satisfaction rating stood at 79 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017, according to Metro Manila-based research institution Social Weather Stations. Much of his popularity stems from perceptions that he has reduced crime, resisted terrorism and created a viable five-year plan to build $167 billion in new infrastructure.

Problems at Benham Rise could erode that, Atienza said.

China alternates between “velvet” and “mailed” fists in Southeast Asian maritime policy, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. But China’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party in October made party head and Chinese President Xi Jinping feel “emboldened,” he said.

“China has all to gain by being nice occasionally and it I think shows that the Philippines has no good choices except to play along with this kind of Chinese attitude,” he said.