By Daniel Llanto | FilAm Star Correspondent
Beijing deployed its largest dredging and island-making vessel Tian Kun Hao in the South China notwithstanding earlier assurances that it will no longer construct anything in the disputed maritime territory.
The Philippines expressed its concern about the launch, and is closely tracking its movements through the Department of National Defense for any violation on the recently agreed protocol and mechanism on de-escalation of tension in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea.
Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana said this development is causing some concerns among Philippine security officials. “We are constantly monitoring the movement of this ship,” Lorenzana said on the sidelines at the 78th anniversary celebrations of the defense department.
China’s official media Xinhua earlier quoted a Beijing-based military expert as giving assurance that “China will abide by the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea … and won’t use the dredger to further expand its artificial islands.”
The Armed Forces of the Philippines have troops in nine occupied territories in the Spratlys archipelago, two of which – Pag-asa island and Ayungin Shoal – are adjacent to China’s reclaimed islands over Subi and Panganiban reefs. Its Western Command (Wescom) also conducts regular maritime and air territorial patrol over the country’s Kalayaan Island Group.
“We have security there in Pag-asa, and we also have troops … in all the islands that we occupy, so we will know immediately if they are doing something there,” Lorenzana said.
Although, he clarified it might be too early to react as authorities still could not point where Tian Kun Hao is heading. He believes that this could become a concern if the dredger will be seen in the Kalayaan group.
Described as a “magic island maker,” Tian Kun Hao has begun water tests at the coastal province of Jiangsu.
The South China Morning Post quoted maritime security experts as saying the vessel could raise concern among nations with rival claims on territories in the South China Sea since it suggests that Beijing is preparing to reassert its dominance in the disputed waters.
China, which has poured billions of dollars into building artificial islands to strengthen its sovereignty claims across most of the South China Sea, has started testing a new ship designed to boost its land reclamation capability.
“The mere presence (of the Chinese dredger) raises a little bit of concern,” Lorenzana told reporters.
Military officials said the ship Tian Kun has a deck the size of nine basketball courts and easily qualifies as Asia’s largest dredging vessel.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which more than $3 trillion of seaborne trade passes each year. Apart from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the area.
Lorenzana said Filipino troops deployed on nine Philippine-claimed islets in the South China Sea were ordered to monitor the movements of Chinese navy, coastguard and fishing boats in the Spratly islands.
“We are constantly monitoring the movement of the ship,” he added. “We have also our air patrol going regularly, so we will be able to monitor movement of this so-called very big dredger ship.”
The launch of the dredger comes ahead of two major international meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines this week and the next, set to be attended by leaders of China and the United States.
In August, the foreign ministers of Southeast Asia and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a move they hailed as progress but which critics saw as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.