Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - China yesterday sent its first patrol vessel to disputed parts of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) ahead of the enforcement of new rules that authorised Chinese border police to board, search and expel foreign vessels from waters Beijing considers its territory.
The state-run Xinhua news agency reported that the patrol ship Haixun 21 sailed into the high seas Thursday under the administration of the Maritime Safety Administration of Hainan province, from which China administers the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines said it would verify the report.
If the report proves correct, the Philippines will ask the Chinese why they are "patrolling and in what areas," Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.
Del Rosario said the Philippines was also verifying reports that China was investing US$1.6 billion to fortify and develop islands involved in territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations in the West Philippine Sea.
Hainan province announced in late November new rules that authorised Chinese border patrols to board, search and expel foreign vessels from waters in the West Philippine Sea claimed by China.
Freedom of navigation
The new rules will come into effect on January 1, but Southeast Asian nations and the United States have asked China for clarification on the purpose and extent of the new rules.
The United States has taken a neutral stance on its Southeast Asian allies' territorial disputes with China, but it has made clear that it has a "national interest" in freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea, home to sea-lanes where a third of global trade passes and to islands, reefs and atolls believed to be sitting on vast gas and oil reserves.
Del Rosario said China had yet to respond to the Philippines' request for clarification of the new maritime rules.
China claims almost the entire West Philippine Sea, but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam claim parts of the sea within their exclusive economic zones. Taiwan also claims some islands in the sea.
The Philippines and Vietnam are the more strident claimants, pressing for the resolution of their claims according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and for a code of conduct in the sea to prevent the conflicting claims from erupting into armed clashes.
On Wednesday the financial news agency Bloomberg reported that China was investing $1.6 billion to build infrastructure, including air and sea ports, in Sansha City, a garrison town built by China on Woody Island, in the Paracels, claimed by Vietnam.
China established Sansha City in June to govern the Paracel and Spratly islands and the Panatag Shoal (Scarbourough Shoal), where Chinese and Philippine ships faced off with each other from early April to mid-June.
Vietnam and the Philippines protested the establishment of Sansha City, calling it a violation of international law.
Manila said it was "unacceptable" for a Chinese city to hold administrative control over territories within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Instead of responding to the protests, China, through Hainan, announced the new maritime rules.
In its report yesterday, Xinhua quoted Ruan Ruiwen, head of the Hainan Maritime Safety Administration, as saying that the Haixun 21's departure for the South China Sea marked the beginning of Chinese sailing beyond coastal waters.
"In the past, Hainan provincial maritime law enforcement entities could only cover coastal waters and never reached the high seas. The newly enlisted Haixun 21 ends the history of no large oceangoing patrol vessels in South China Sea," Ruan said.
Xinhua also quoted Huang He, deputy head of the maritime bureau of China's Ministry of Transport, as saying that the vessel "will monitor maritime traffic safety, investigate maritime accidents, detect pollution, carry out search and rescue work, and fulfill international conventions".
The report said the ship could sail without refeuelling for up to 7,200 kilometres, roughly the same distance between the Philippines and Australia.
Chinese media criticised China's rivals for territory in the West Philippine Sea for "provocations" and justified China's decision to fortify Sansha and upgrade its naval forces.
Del Rosario said the Philippine Embassy in Beijing was verifying reports of the Chinese investment.
If the reports are true, Del Rosario said, China would violate the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that it signed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2002.
The declaration aims to deter use of force and instead promote peace and self-restraint among countries claiming territory in the sea.
"We have officially asked for clarification from the Chinese Embassy in Manila and as well asked our Beijing post to directly contact their [Chinese] foreign ministry. Until now we are still awaiting an official response," Del Rosario said.
China's Global Times and China Daily insisted that China had the right to secure its sovereignty over the islands claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam in the West Philippine Sea and by Japan in the East China Sea.
The two newspapers called the Philippines' and Vietnam's protests against China moves in the sea "provocations".
Global Times opinion writer Yu Jincui said in an article published yesterday that China's plan to develop Sansha City was aimed at bolstering the country's southern maritime defence.
Yu said the development of Sansha City was China's response to "provocations" from the Philippines and Vietnam.
China Daily said China's efforts to upgrade its Navy should not set off alarm bells in the region.
The paper cited "provocations" from the Philippines and Japan as justification for China's bulking up its naval muscles.
Other countries should not "read too much into China's efforts to build itself into a maritime power," the paper said.
"China does not seek hegemony. It will not pose a threat to others. Its resolve to enhance its defence forces only serves its need to cultivate a good security environment for its peaceful development," the paper said.