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Philippines Sends Ship After China Boat Heads for Spratlys

The Philippines announced it will send its biggest warship, a World War II vessel, to a disputed part of the South China Sea after China said it was deploying one of its new coastal patrol vessels in the waters.

The BRP Rajah Humabon, used by the U.S. against German submarines, will patrol around Scarborough Shoal near the Spratly Islands in waters claimed by China, the Philippine Star reported on its website. China sent the Haixun 31, a 3,000-ton vessel with a helicopter landing pad, to inspect foreign ships and oil facilities in disputed waters of the South China Sea, Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported yesterday.

"The Navy conducts regular offshore patrols and we should not connect the deployment of Rajah Humabon to the deployment of this maritime vessel of China," defense department spokesman Eduardo Batac said in a press briefing today. "It’s part of routine patrols that are being conducted by the Navy."

Tensions in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes have increased as the Philippines and Vietnam press ahead with oil and gas projects against China’s wishes. Exxon Mobil Corp., Talisman Energy Inc., Forum Energy Plc and Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, known as PetroVietnam, have operations in areas of the South China Sea claimed by China.

Commander Miguel Jose Rodriguez, the spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the vessel was being deployed off the country’s main island of Luzon. The Star earlier reported the ship was preparing to sail from Poro Point seaport, about 195 miles (316 kilometers) northeast of Scarborough Shoal, called Huangyan Island by China.

Defense Treaties

The U.S., which has patrolled Asia-Pacific waters since World War II, has defense treaties with the Philippines and Thailand, and guarantees Taiwan’s security. U.S. aircraft carrier USS George Washington is “on a routine patrol of waters in the Western Pacific,” U.S. Navy spokesman Commander Jeff Davis said, without providing details of its planned route.

"The South China Sea is international waters and we transit through there routinely," Davis said by phone from Jakarta. The carrier "has been through there many times before in the past and it’ll be through there many times in the future."

The U.S. sold a 378-foot Coast Guard vessel equipped with a helicopter launching pad and missile system to the Philippines earlier this year that will be its largest naval vessel when delivered in August, according to a May 12 statement by the Philippine Navy. At 306 feet, the Humabon is smaller than the 367-foot Haixun 31, according to the Ta Kung Pao report.

Later this month, the U.S. Navy will send three ships to conduct joint exercises off of Palawan island "in a combination of Philippine waters and international waters," Davis said.

‘What’s Ours is Ours’

The Philippine Navy removed territorial markers placed by China on three reefs in the South China Sea near Palawan island in May, Armed Forces Naval Forces West commander Edgardo Tamayo said yesterday. Two months earlier, Chinese vessels chased away a survey vessel working in the area for Forum Energy, a U.K.- based company majority owned by Philex Mining Corp.

“We are very concerned about these markers being placed in waters and areas, features that are clearly ours,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert F. del Rosario told reporters in Canberra yesterday, where he met with Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. “What’s ours is ours. We are free to do with that as we please.”

Chinese ships have rammed survey vessels operated by PetroVietnam twice in the past month, according to Vietnam’s foreign ministry, with one incident occurring in an area where Calgary-based Talisman Energy planned a seismic program this year. China has disputed that version of events, saying it’s committed to maintaining peace in the seas.

Beefing Up Forces

The personnel in the China Marine Surveillance force will rise to 15,000 by 2020 from 9,000 now, the China Daily reported today, citing an unidentified official with the agency. The number of surveillance vessels being operated by the CMS will increase from 260 to 350 by 2015, the report said.

In addition to the CMS, China has four other civilian maritime forces, including a fishery protection fleet that has grown by an average of 100 vessels a year since 2005, according to a report last year by China Daily.

China has also bolstered the People’s Liberation Army naval forces over the past decade, procuring nuclear-powered submarines and developing an aircraft carrier, according to a U.S. Defense Department report in August. Its missile patrol craft, destroyers and frigates in the South Sea fleet “could alter regional balances,” the report said.

Officials on the Chinese patrol ship will discuss anti-piracy and sea rescue issues with Singaporean officials when it arrives, the official Xinhua news agency said.

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