BEIJING, Jun (Reuters) - China sent one of its biggest civilian maritime patrol ships into the South China Sea to protect its “rights and sovereignty,” official media said on Thursday, a move likely to raise tensions with neighbours staking rival claims to waters thought to hold reserves of oil and gas.
The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration’s Haixun 31 left south China on Wednesday and will head for Singapore, passing near the Paracel and Spratly island groups at the heart of disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and other governments.
Chinese news reports were plain about the intent of the trip and the news drew concern from the Philippines.
“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 surveying, inspect oil wells and “protect maritime security,” the paper said — steps that could lead to confrontation with other countries pressing claims in the sea.
It also said it would carry out inspections of foreign vessels anchored or operating in waters claimed by China.
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 tonnes. It has a helicopter pad and can stay at sea for 40 days travelling at 18 knots, the Beijing Daily said.
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 South China 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.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman 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.
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 modernisation, which has included modernising its civilian maritime administration ships.
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea.
The patrol also appeared intended to mollify nationalist feeling among Chinese people, many of whom feel the country’s growing economic and military might should be used to protect and assert territorial claims.
“Obviously, China cannot again sit back and watch and allow other countries to treat their seizure of the South China Sea’s oil and gas resources as an established fact,” said the International Herald Leader, a Chinese weekly newspaper.
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 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), 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.
This week, Beijing warned outside countries not to step into the dispute, after Vietnam said other countries, including the United States, could help defuse the tension.
The Haixun 31 is due to reach Singapore next Thursday after a journey of 1,400 nautical miles (2,600 kilometres) and will go back to China after a six-day stay, said the Beijing Daily.
Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Sabrina Mao in Beijing and James Grubel in Canberra; Editing by Nick Macfie