CasiguranThe Philippines plans to build a naval base in Casiguran, Aurora, to support security operations for Benham Rise, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Saturday.

Casiguran, a town on Aurora’s northern part which faces Benham Rise, is also set to be a venue of one of the activities of this year’s Balikatan joint military exercises with the U.S.

Lorenzana said he will visit Casiguran soon to inspect the area where the naval base will be put up.

“Pupuntahan namin ‘yung place to find out what still needs to be done. Mayroon nang airstrip doon. Piers na lang for ships ang kailangang gawin (We will go to the place to find out what needs to be done. It already has an airstrip. Piers for ships are still needed),” the defense chief said in a text message.

In March, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to put up something at Benham Rise to show that the undersea feature belongs to the Philippines.

This was after Lorenzana reported that Chinese survey ships had been seen sailing in Benham Rise, apparently looking for a place where submarines can be deployed.

President Duterte recently suggested that the undersea feature be renamed Philippine Rise to highlight the country’s sovereignty over the area.

Navy frigates are now patrolling Benham Rise, on orders of the Armed Forces’ Northern Luzon Command.

Presently, there are no active naval bases on Luzon’s eastern seaboard, only detachments, according to the Navy.

Only the Camilo Osias Naval Operating Base in Brgy. San Vicente, Sta. Ana, Cagayan — mainland Luzon’s northernmost tip — is being used to support patrols to the east.

Balikatan venue

On Sunday and Monday, a part of Balikatan 2017 called “Civil Military Activities from the Sea” (CMA-S) will be held in Casiguran, as well as on some islands off Cagayan.

The activities will see the Navy’s current biggest ship BRP Tarlac (LD-601) operate in seaborne and ship-to-shore maneuvers with USNS Sacagawea (T-AKE 2).

These are aimed to “enhance readiness for HADR (humanitarian and disaster response),” said Capt. Frank sayson, the Philippines’ information officer for Balikatan.

Activities of this year’s Balikatan focus on HADR and counter-terrorism, after being swung away from the disputed South China Sea, on orders of President Duterte, the military said.

Observers, however, believe that the activity in Casiguran will still benefit the Philippines and the U.S. “strategically,” as the town faces both Benham Rise and the Pacific Ocean.

“For us, it’s Benham Rise. For them (U.S.) it’s because Casiguran is facing the Pacific, that’s what they want, that’s part of their strategy,” a Navy officer said on condition of anonymity.

‘Secure it’

Calls to secure Benham Rise, which officially became part of the Philippines in 2012 through a decision by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, mounted following the sighting of Chinese ships.

Retired Vice Adm. Emilio Marayag said stronger naval presence should be established in Luzon’s eastern seaboard to protect Benham Rise, which contains abundant mineral deposits and fishery resources, and hosts international maritime traffic to and from North Asia.

“Given the vast potential of the Benham Rise… increasing the presence of maritime forces in the area will enhance business confidence and expand commercial activities,” Marayag said in his article a magazine on the country’s maritime affairs.

Marayag, a former deputy chief of staff of the AFP, suggested that new naval bases be built along the eastern corridor of Luzon or existing ones be upgraded.

In the same publication, retired Commo. Carlos Agustin, a former Coast Guard commandant, suggested that the former Bicobian Naval Station in Isabela be reactivated. (John Roson)

– end –