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In apparent about-face, Duterte says Chinese surveillance ships can ply Philippine waters

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday he had agreed to allow Chinese surveillance ships into Filipino waters, contradicting his defense minister, who described their presence as “very concerning.”

Duterte also told reporters he did not want to have a “fight” with China over Benham Rise — waters recognized by the United Nation as indisputably Philippine territory — partly because he wanted Chinese economic help.

“They have no incursion because we have an agreement,” Duterte told reporters when asked about the reported presence of Chinese surveillance ships at Benham Rise.

“Some people are just blowing it up. We previously agreed. It was a research ship. We were advised of it way ahead.”

Duterte’s comments came after his defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, said last week that Chinese surveillance ships had been seen in Benham Rise, which is believed to sit atop lucrative oil and gas deposits.

“The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed,” Lorenzana said. “I have ordered the navy that if they see this service ship this year, to start to accost them and drive them away.”

Lorenzana said China may be “looking for a place to put submarines.”

Duterte emphasized Monday the Philippines was set to enjoy billions of dollars in Chinese investments and grants, following his decision not to argue with China over another territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

“Let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time because things are going great for my country,” Duterte said in reference to China.

Benham Rise is an underwater landmass 250 km (155 miles) off the east coast of the main island of Luzon.

In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Philippines’ undisputed territorial claim to Benham Rise.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said last week that although the U.N. had ruled in the Philippines’ favor, this did not mean Benham Rise was part of its territory.

China and the Philippines have had a long-running dispute over competing claims in the South China Sea, a conduit for about $5 trillion of shipped goods annually. China lays claim to almost the entire sea, while Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.

Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had forcefully challenged China in diplomatic and legal circles over the South China Sea dispute, leading to a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations.

Duterte, who took office last year, has reversed that policy, preferring instead to placate China in return for hoped-for billions of dollars worth of investments and grants.

Earlier Duterte had ordered the navy to put up “structures” to assert its sovereignty.

The Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing after the vessel was tracked moving back and forth in the area.

China’s foreign ministry on Friday said the ship was engaged in “normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage” and nothing more.

Lorenzana said Duterte’s instruction was to increase naval patrols in that area and put up structures “that says this is ours.” He did not specify what structures would be erected.

“We are concerned, they have no business going there,” Lorenzana told reporters late on Sunday.

Though he accepts China’s explanation, Lorenzana said it was clear its vessel was not passing through the area because it stopped several times, for sustained periods.

Asked during a news conference what his instruction was to the navy concerning Benham Rise, Duterte said the Philippines had to assert itself, but gently.

“You go there and tell them straight that this is ours,” he said. “But I say it in friendship.”