Manila, Philippines — Plans are afoot in Isabela province to build a naval outpost in the coastal town of Divilacan to keep watch over Philippine (Benham) Rise, an undersea region in the country’s eastern seaboard that is believed to contain huge natural gas deposits, according to Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr.
The defense chief said Isabela Gov. Rodolfo Albano III was keen to build such a facility for “joint use” with the United States in his province, which hosts one of four new sites under Manila’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with Washington.
“[Albano] is here and he wants to post a stronger military presence not just inside Isabela but along the coastline, in the town of Divilacan, by building a naval facility for joint use [with the US] to protect the country’s exclusive economic zone in that area,” Teodoro told reporters.
He made the remarks on the sidelines of a visit to two Edca sites — Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela, and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.
Albano, who joined Teodoro’s visit to the Army camp, confirmed this, saying the presence of Americans in the province, especially in coastal areas, could help protect unexplored natural resources in Philippine Rise.
The second-class municipality of Divilacan is one of Isabela’s four coastal towns facing the Philippine Rise.
Bigger than Luzon, the rise extends eastward off the provinces of Aurora and Isabela, and Bicol Region. The extended continental shelf has an area of 135,506 square kilometers (13.5 million hectares), equivalent to about half of the country’s land area.
“It would be best if we can have a base where we can have friends who can supply us with a little security and a little of their technology and equipment,” Albano told reporters.
He said the province also lacked sophisticated weather warning devices to aid disaster officials during disasters.
“I’m more than convinced that Edca is welcome here so long as its use is for what the secretary told us—for our security and for the benefit of our constituents,” Albano said.
New Edca sites
Camp Melchor Dela Cruz, the headquarters of the Philippine Army’s 5th Infantry Division, is one of four additional sites under the expanded Edca, a deal allowing visiting American forces to rotate troops and use facilities in Philippine bases.
The other sites are in northern Luzon close to Taiwan — the Camilo Osias Naval Base and Lal-lo Airport both in Cagayan — while another is on Balabac Island in Palawan province, near the West Philippine Sea.
Among some of the planned joint-use facilities within the 564-hectare Camp Melchor Dela Cruz are a vertical landing pad for helicopters, a command and control fusion center, and a logistics warehouse, Teodoro said.
He said construction could start by the end of the year or in early 2024.
“These Philippine bases with Edca facilities are for us purely for internal credible deterrent posture. And not only here, we have to develop Philippine bases throughout the perimeters of the archipelago in order to secure our territory not only now but for the future,” Teodoro said.
“It’s a lesson for us. What happened in the West Philippine Sea, let’s not replicate it here. Let’s not allow it to happen. This is important for the total defense posture of our country,” he added.
So far, Manila is the only claimant to Philippine Rise.
The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf ruled in 2012 that the rise was part of the country’s extended continental shelf and thus the country could explore, exploit, conserve, and manage natural resources there.
The landmass, the shallowest part of which is 50 meters, is a rich fishing ground for fisherfolk from Aurora and Quezon, as well as provinces in Bicol. It is called “Kalipungawan” (loneliness) by fishers from Catanduanes, who can reach the area after a 12-hour boat ride.
Its name was changed from Benham Rise under Executive Order No. 25, signed in May 2017, to emphasize the country’s rights over the area.
Regional defense pact
Also on Wednesday, some senators expressed support for the forging of a new defense pact among countries in Southeast Asia against threats to regional security amid brewing tensions in the West Philippine Sea.
At a hearing of the Senate foreign relations committee, Sen. Risa Hontiveros suggested that the Department of Foreign Affairs study the crafting of a new multilateral defense agreement similar to the defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
In response, Hans Mohaimin Siriban, DFA undersecretary for bilateral relations and Asean affairs, said the government was open to entering into new defense treaties to cover maritime concerns.
“We believe we are open to receiving such an arrangement, such a treaty so long as it serves the best interest of the Philippines,” he told senators.
—WITH REPORTS FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH AND MELVIN GASCON