MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines said on Saturday it was planning to change the name of a stretch of water east of the country in a bid to highlight its sovereignty over the area, which was surveyed recently by a Chinese vessel.
A Chinese survey ship was tracked for several months late last year moving around Benham Rise — declared part of the Philippines’ continental shelf in 2012 by the United Nations, stirring concern in Manila about Beijing’s possible intentions.
China says the ship was simply passing through the area and was not engaged in any other activity, and the country’s foreign minister said last week China fully respects the Philippines’ maritime area rights over Benham Rise.
Manila said on Saturday it wanted to rename the area, which is roughly the size of Greece and believed by some scientists to be rich in biodiversity and tuna, “Philippine Rise”.
“A motion has been made subject to the conduct of the requisite legal and logistical study to effect the change,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a statement.
The president ordered the foreign ministry and executive secretary’s offices to study changing the territory’s name to emphasize Philippine sovereign rights, he said.
Territorial rows with China have usually centered on the South China Sea, west of the Philippines, a conduit for about $5 trillion of shipped goods annually. China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who has sought a warm relationship with Beijing following years of territorial spats under the previous president, ordered the navy to put up “structures” in Benham Rise to assert sovereignty over the area.
He has come under pressure of late for what critics say is a defeatist stance, accusing him of turning a blind eye to China’s island-building in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines and its activities at Benham Rise.
A Senate hearing this week revealed China sought permission two years ago to survey Benham Rise, but the request was rejected because it would not let Philippine experts take part.
Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Helen Popper