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Defence minister “very concerned” at Chinese incursion into territorial waters



Benham Rise is an undisputed part of Philippine territorial waters

Chinese survey ships entering Philippine territorial waters is “very concerning” the country’s defence minister said today (Thursday, March 9).

Delfin Lorenzana said the ships were seen last year near Benham Rise — a UN-recognised Philippine territory 155 miles off the east coast of Luzon — as well as at Reed Bank in the South China Sea.

“I have ordered the navy that if they see this ship this year, to start to accost them and drive them away,” Mr Lorenzana said.

“The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed,” he added.

The US Navy sent an aircraft carrier battle group into the contested waters last month on a freedom of movement patrol

Mr Lorenzana’s statement comes as President Duterte seeks warmer relations with Beijing, after ties soured under the previous administration because of conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

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Mr Lorenzana also said he had received information that the vessels in Benham Rise were “looking for a place to put submarines”.

Benham Rise is believed to be potentially rich in mineral and natural gas deposits.

In 2012, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved the Philippines’ undisputed claim to Benham Rise.

The Philippines and China, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, have conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

China claims almost all of the highly strategic water, including Reed Bank, which is about 92 miles off the Philippine island of Palawan. It has also embarked on a programme of building artificial islands, some of which are believed to house long-range missile silos (see links below).

One of China’s militarised islands in the South China Sea

The Philippines won an international arbitration award last year that invalidated China’s claims to sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea. Instead of pressing China to comply, Duterte has chosen to tap Beijing for business, and has promised to deal with the maritime dispute later.

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Lorenzana voiced frustration on Thursday that since Duterte took office eight months ago, the Philippines had submitted about a dozen requests to the Chinese embassy to explain its maritime activities, but each time it had denied they had taken place.

Asked about activities of the survey ships Lorenzana had referred to, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was unaware of the report.

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