South China Morning Post
June 18, 2011 Saturday

Manila sends its flagship to shoal
The Philippines' move comes as state media reveals recent PLA beach-landing drills, a step seen as showing China can retake a seized island

Greg Torode and Teddy Ng in Beijing

 

The Philippines is sending its biggest warship to a South China Sea shoal also claimed by China as tensions over disputed waters extend into the military sphere.

Officials in Manila announced the move as the People's Liberation Army confirmed military exercises off Hainan - a symbolic show of force that included beach landings.

While Philippine defence officials insisted the patrol of the 1,600 tonne BRP Rajah Humabon around Scarborough Shoal was routine, Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned that his nation would not allow itself to be bullied by China. The destroyer used to serve the US and Japanese navies and is one of the last world war two ships in active service. Scarborough Shoal, northwest of Manila Bay, is claimed only by China and the Philippines and has long been a source of friction between Manila and Beijing.

"We will not be pushed around because we are a tiny state compared with theirs," Aquino told the Associated Press. "We think we have very solid grounds to say 'Do not intrude into our territory', and that is not a source of dispute or should not be a source of dispute."

Aquino added that as an "overall strategy", the Philippines would not embark on an arms race or escalate tensions, "but we do have to protect our rights".

He did say, however, that his government had stopped oil and gas exploration around Reed Bank off Palawan - where the Philippines has said its vessels have been harassed by China - and that oil and gas prospects in the area were "very good".

China has recently objected to oil exploration efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam in what Beijing claims as its waters and has called for a halt until disputes are settled.

The People's Liberation Army Daily reported, meanwhile, that a marine corps brigade staged drills in the South China Sea on June 6, including beach landings by troops.

China Review News quoted brigade head Chen Weidong as saying that the drill enhanced the brigade's beach-landing abilities and had also included long-range raids and protection against aircraft attacks.

China Central Television reported on Thursday that 14 PLA Navy vessels recently staged drills in waters around Hainan. The exercises aimed at defending atolls and protecting sea lanes, and drills included anti-submarine patrols.

Antony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau, said the release of information about the drills by state media was an attempt to address rising demand among mainlanders for tough action.

Wong said the beach landing drill was aimed at giving the brigade the ability to "claim back the islands when they are seized by Vietnam and the Philippines". "The drills are specifically targeted at Vietnam and the Philippines," he said.

PLA strategists have long bristled at Vietnam's extensive military holdings in the Spratlys, spread across more than 25 islands. China occupies just six, seized from Vietnam in a brief sea battle in 1988.

China and Vietnam claim the South China Sea's Paracel and Spratly archipelagos in their entirety, while the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia claim part. Taiwan's claim mirrors Beijing's.

China will boost offshore surveillance by adding ships and 6,000 personnel to the existing 9,000 by 2020, the China Daily reported, quoting an unnamed official with the State Oceanic Administration.

China sent its largest civilian maritime patrol ship to the South China Sea three days ago. Xinhua reported that the mission of the Haixun 31 would include inspecting oil wells and monitoring the activities of foreign vessels in Chinese waters to "protect ? rights and sovereignty". The ship is due to visit Singapore as part of the trip.