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Benham Rise and our landlocked vision

Frankly, I think we owe China a huge debt of gratitude for making us realize the importance of our geography and vital maritime interests. Because undeniably, China’s brazen bullying tactics in Philippine waters are a blessing in disguise. Nothing arouses and galvanizes a people more than a threat to their national security and survival. Beijing’s projection of its power way beyond its shores and into our territorial domain has clearly rankled the national pride. Even the voice of remnant homegrown Maoist militants has now joined the growing public clamor for greater vigilance and resolve against Chinese aggression and creeping imperialism.

First of all, because of the Chinese threat, the Philippines is finally seriously modernizing its armed forces, currently among the weakest in Asia. Understandably, the lion’s share of the initial P75-billion modernization budget under the Aquino administration has been earmarked for the Navy and Air Force, which provide the country’s first line of defense. It is also dictated by the requirements of our archipelagic waters and a coastline twice as long as that of the United States. The military upgrade will undoubtedly translate into a more credible defensive and deterrent force for our country. A collateral benefit of an improved military capability of this nature would be to scare off the usual poachers, smugglers, pirates and hostage-taking terrorists that live off the easy pickings along our unprotected coasts and internal waters.

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Certainly, our new arms would be no match to China’s vaunted military might, but they will pack enough firepower to discourage outright gunboat bullying and further arrogant squatting on what is clearly Philippine territory. The government’s planned purchase of brand-new attack helicopters, new-generation fighter jets, and state-of-the-art missile-firing frigates aims to do just that.

Despite the shrill warnings of peaceniks and America-bashers about the dangers posed by the escalating arms race in Southeast Asia and, more importantly, the “US rebalancing to Asia,” the containment and balance of power strategy implied in the pivot is a wise and proven doctrine. What we should really worry about is the opposite, because it is weakness and imbalance of power that tempt aggression and often lead to war.

Second, and more important, the Chinese threat is elevating our people’s awareness of our nation’s archipelagic character and prodigious maritime assets. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) has added 290,000 square nautical miles to our total maritime territory, making it 652,000 square nautical miles: more than seven times the size of our land mass, if we add to that figure the 13-million-hectare Benham Rise, a partially submerged land mass east of Luzon that was recognized by the UN in 2012 as part of Philippine territory.

The vast, virtually unexplored area should contain great reserves of energy and precious minerals. And like the West Philippine Sea, the Benham Rise waters may also be vital to our food security. Lying almost parallel with the Koroshio Channel, known for its rich marine habitats, the Benham area appears to be a vast nursery of marine biodiversity. Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara has repeatedly urged Malacañang to prioritize its exploration and development in light of the projected drying up of the Malampaya gas fields in 2024. But he seems unaware of its immense food security potential.

The Chinese danger is transforming, as it were, our largely landlocked vision, turning it ever seaward, where it should be equally focused. Our land-oriented vision, a product of our technocrats’ Western education or schooling in continental countries, have made our leaders virtually blind to the riches in our ocean and resources—and indifferent to their decades-old plunder by smugglers, poachers and pirates.

The Philippines loses an estimated 600,000 metric tons in maritime resources, or P50 billion yearly in revenues and taxes, to poachers in foreign vessels. Those huge losses (which do not include untold billions of dollars in thefts of corals) over a 30-year period are more than enough to pay off our entire foreign debt, or fund good, long-term “inclusive” economic programs that would enable us to join the ranks of affluent countries within our lifetime.

Our lackadaisical, half-hearted, ad hoc approach to the development of our maritime resources can be seen in the fact that to date, 21 years after Unclos came into force, not one of our universities has a viable curriculum on the subject. There is an Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, but it is notable only for its few low-impact symposiums. Even its official website offers mostly blank space. Sadly, seven decades after independence, we still lack a comprehensive inventory of our coastal resources, much less a good idea of the kind and volume of wealth that lies beneath our internal waters and EEZ (exclusive economic zone). Without such a national inventory, how can there be intelligent long-term planning ?

By refocusing our landlocked orientation seaward, without necessarily neglecting the sound and sustainable development of our land resources, we can properly exploit and manage resources such as food, minerals and energy in an area many times larger than our land base. Such a reality can only augur well for the future of our archipelagic country.

Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.

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TAGS: Benham Rise, China, South China Sea, Unclos, West Philippine Sea
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