China sets gunboat diplomacy
BEIJING—China sent one of its biggest civilian maritime patrol ships into the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) to protect its “rights and sovereignty,” official media said on Thursday, a move likely to raise tensions with neighbors staking rival claims to waters thought to hold reserves of oil and gas.
In Manila, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin raised the possibility of the Philippines filing a diplomatic protest if the Chinese ship encroached on waters claimed by Manila.
“Diplomatic protest, yes,” Gazmin told reporters when asked what action the Philippines would take if any intrusion should occur.
Gazmin stressed his department was still validating the report and checking what kind of Chinese vessel was involved.
“According to the news, it is not a battleship … These are maritime ships so we don’t have to worry, but we are guarding our area of responsibility,” he said.
The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration’s Haixun-31 left south China on Wednesday and will head for Singapore, passing near the Paracel and Spratly Islands at the heart of disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.
Chinese news reports were plain about the intent of the trip.
“Our country’s biggest maritime patrol ship patrols the South China Sea,” said a headline in the official Beijing Daily.
The Haixun-31 would monitor shipping, carry out survey, inspect oil wells and “protect maritime security,” the paper said—steps that could lead to confrontation with other countries pressing claims on the sea.
It also said the ship would carry out inspections of foreign vessels anchored or operating in waters claimed by China.
Advanced patrol ship
The Haixun-31 is one of two civilian ships the same size which lack the heavy firepower of naval vessels.
But it is also one of China’s most advanced maritime patrol vessels, weighing in with a displacement of 3,000 tons. It has a helicopter pad and can stay at sea for 40 days travelling at 18 knots, the Beijing Daily said.
It is 112 meters (370 feet) long and is one of two vessels of that size belonging to the Maritime Safety Administration, one of five nominally civilian agencies tasked with overseeing China’s interests at sea.
China’s move comes after weeks of trading accusations with Vietnam and the Philippines over what each government sees as intrusions and illegitimate claims over territorial waters by the other in a stretch of ocean spanned by key shipping lanes.
The Philippines would be concerned if China placed markers in disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Thursday after talks with his Australian counterpart in Canberra.
“We are very concerned about these markers being placed in waters and areas and features that are clearly ours,” Del Rosario told reporters.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, told reporters in Beijing that the Haixun-31 was on a “normal” visit, and his government remained willing to solve the territorial disputes through one-on-one negotiations with other countries making claims.
Show of resolve
But official Chinese media reports made plain the patrol was also meant to show Beijing’s resolve.
“Throughout its journey, it will carry out patrolling of the marine areas being developed by China in the South China Sea,” said the Takung Pao, a Chinese-language Hong Kong newspaper that is under mainland control. “It will protect national maritime rights and sovereignty.”
The South China Sea tensions have been magnified by region-wide nervousness about China’s naval modernization, which has included modernizing its civilian maritime administration ships.
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea, either wholly or in part.
The patrol also appeared intended to mollify nationalist feelings among Chinese people, many of whom feel the country’s growing economic and military might should be used to protect and assert territorial claims.
China has accused Vietnam of violating its claim to the Spratly archipelago and nearby seas, which Vietnam also deems its own. China calls the islands the Nansha group.
China’s claim is by far the largest, forming a vast U-shape over most of the sea’s 1.7 million square kilometers (648,000 square miles), including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
Beijing said last week it would hold naval drills in June in the western Pacific Ocean and the navy has done little to disguise plans to launch its first aircraft carrier.
The Haixun-31 is due to reach Singapore next Thursday after a journey of 2,600 kilometers (1,400 nautical miles) and will go back to China after a six-day stay, said the Beijing Daily.
Similar ships have been accused of harassing foreign shipping in the South China Sea, including US Navy surveillance vessels.
The Philippine military gave no indication that the voyage of the Haixun-31 was an immediate cause for worry.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson, Commodore Miguel Rodriguez, said the deployment of the Haixun-31 was a “normal” course of action for a country bent on protecting its interests.
“For us, that’s just a normal activity,” Rodriguez said when asked if he interpreted this as China flexing its military muscle in the Spratlys.
“All countries have their way of promoting their own interests,” Rodriguez said, adding: “(A) 3,000-ton (ship)—that is small.”
Rodriguez said the AFP had no immediate plans to deploy the BRP Rajah Humabon, the Philippines’ largest warship, in reaction to the trip of the Haixun-31.
Rodriguez said the Humabon, a destroyer-escort built during World War II, was currently stationed at the Northern Luzon Command, which technically is in the West Philippine Sea.
“We don’t have a strategy of tapatan (face-off). Our defense is never in response to any one country. We just focus on capable defense structures. We don’t counter ship with ship … That’s not a good strategy,” he said.
For security reasons, Rodriguez would not disclose the exact location of the Humabon, one of the world’s oldest operational warships. He said Navy ships routinely went through “deploy-maintain-repair-train” cycles, and the Humabon had been newly deployed to its current assignment.
“But depending on the needs of the Navy, it may be deployed elsewhere, depending on the situation, which may change at any time,” he said by phone.
The Humabon is set to be replaced by a Hamilton-class cutter recently acquired by the Navy from the US Coast Guard to improve its defense capabilities. The vessel is expected to arrive in August or September. The purchase cost the Philippine government some P450 million. Reports from Reuters and DJ Yap
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