By Christina Mendez
MANILA, Philippines - Did President Duterte give permission to Beijing to explore Benham Rise?
Malacañang spokesman Ernesto Abella seemed confused when pressed about the Chief Executive’s public statements on Benham Rise, which showed Duterte’s confusion between the seismically active undersea plateau off Aurora province and the West Philippine Sea.
“Well, let me just refer you first to the President’s statement where he said that… ‘There was no incursion and the only agreement was research and there was no…’ In fact, he said, ‘Inimbita ko nga ‘yung mga Russian battleships, so walang incursion’ (I even invited the Russian battleships. So there was no incursion),” Abella said.
Duterte met the National Security Council at Malacañang on Monday after a press briefing where he said he consented to a research mission by Chinese ships in Benham Rise.
This came after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana disclosed last week several Chinese vessels had been plying the 13 million-hectare undersea region and biodiversity hotspot located east of Luzon, with one ship crisscrossing the area for about three months in an apparent surveying mission.
A few days later, Duterte claimed he had allowed the vessel to pass through Benham Rise, a statement that surprised his defense chief.
Duterte said he did not want to fight over Benham Rise to get economic aid from China.
In yesterday’s press briefing, Abella scrambled for words on whether the President was referring to the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea or to Benham Rise.
“That I cannot answer. There was no specific reference to that. But for all it’s worth…it was not a formally written agreement. It was… Well, that would be speculation if I said so,” he said.
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