Philippine secretary of national defense Delfin Lorenzana stirred up a political maelstrom in Manila last week with the revelation that Chinese survey vessels were apparently conducting oceanographic research work off the east coast of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. The vessels were spotted in the waters of the Benham Rise, a large underwater plateau in the Pacific Ocean east of Luzon that is partially within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. In 2012, the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf validated the Philippines’ claim to an extended continental shelf that encapsulated the entirety of the rise. Lorenzana’s report indicated that the Chinese survey vessel had repeatedly traversed the rise over three months in a stop-and-go pattern characteristic of survey work, and that this was not the only instance of such activities.

China initially responded to Lorenzana’s accusations by questioning the Philippine claim on Benham Rise, before dialing back its criticism to say it respects Philippine sovereign rights to the area. It also denied that the vessel was engaged in marine research work and insisted it was merely exercising innocent passage through Philippine waters. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte said the incident was “blown out of proportion” and claimed that the vessel’s research was previously agreed upon with China. This admission only created more confusion, since neither the defense nor the foreign affairs departments of the Philippines had heard of any such agreement. Amid growing controversy, opposition lawmakers filed an impeachment complaint as Congress went into recess.

The incident underscores the Philippine public’s heightened sensitivity to the country’s unresolved maritime territorial and jurisdictional problems, as well as persistent worries over interactions with China. Filipinos remain divided and on edge regarding the current modus vivendi with China, and simmering frustrations with the soft stance taken by President Duterte toward the South China Sea disputes have found an outlet in Benham Rise.

China’s interest and activities in and around Benham Rise, as well as the rest of the Pacific seaboard of the Philippines, should not be any surprise. As Beijing consolidates its hold on the South China Sea, it is logical to expect expansion outward into the Pacific. The objectives of this expansion are likewise unsurprising; it is not to gain new territory, but to increase and ensure China’s oceanic footprint. As part of its greater economic strategy, China’s “Blue Economy” initiatives naturally propel it to invest more and more in marine research activities that could lead to sea-based economic opportunities. Its expanding military capabilities require its growing navy to become familiar with the deep ocean environment for surface and undersea operations. And its growing scientific community, especially in the well-funded ocean sciences, will continue pursuing cutting-edge marine scientific research. All these translate into increased activity in the Pacific, the gateway to which is the fragmented and fragile Philippine archipelago.

The Philippine defense establishment is opening its eyes to an uncertain future: expanding Chinese activities giving rise to increased security challenges on the Philippines’ relatively undefended eastern flank. The Philippines’ security frontier has historically been in the South China Sea and the Sulu and Celebes Seas; most of its military bases and external forces are oriented toward those enclosed sea areas. Recent incidents such as China’s seizure of a U.S. Navy drone off Subic Bay last year, arming its artificial islands in the Spratlys, conducting combat air patrols, and a dangerous encounter between surveillance aircraft near Scarborough Shoal all indicate that China’s naval and air forces already press against the Philippines’ western coast. The emerging presence along the eastern coast now presents the extremely uncomfortable picture of being caught in a vise. With President Duterte’s foreign policy emphasis on maritime cooperation with China and “separation” from the United States, perceived incursions into hitherto untouched maritime jurisdictions ring alarm bells for a wary defense establishment.

Benham Rise has presented the Duterte administration with an early foreign policy test. Manila has taken an important step in reassuring Filipinos that it will assert the Philippines’ exclusive jurisdiction in the area, while China has reciprocated by expressly respecting such. China probably senses the extreme sensitivity of Filipinos to this issue and recognizes the potential negative impact it could have on the friendly Philippine leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership continues to face considerable messaging problems with a public that is increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect and impact of China’s maritime expansion. Filipinos also demand greater clarity and transparency in government actions and decisions concerning their powerful neighbor, a demand aggravated by a general lack of familiarity with the legal and practical complexities of their country’s maritime challenges. As the Benham Rise controversy begins to subside, the two governments may have learned that in the future, it would be best to tread very carefully in these raging waters.

About Jay Batongbacal

Jay L. Batongbacal is an associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law and director of the university’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. He was a U.S.-ASEAN Fulbright Initiative Visiting Scholar in Washington, DC, in 2014-2015, assisted the Philippines in pursuing its claim to a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise Region, and is listed as one of the UNESCO/IOC experts for special arbitration under UNCLOS Annex VIII.