The deployment of the Humabon came after China dispatched its largest maritime patrol ship into the area in a move likely to raise tensions with neighbors staking rival claims to waters believed to hold vast reserves of oil and gas.
Chinese state media reports yesterday said the Haixun-31 left Wednesday and will stay in Singapore for two weeks of exchanges on search and rescue, anti-piracy and port management operations.
The ship is passing the Paracel and Spratly island groups at the heart of disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and other nation claimants around the region.
The Chinese media reports appeared to stress the deployment of its biggest patrol ship in the region.
“Our country’s biggest maritime patrol ship patrols the South China Sea,” said the headline in the official Beijing Daily.
Such type of ships has been accused of harassing foreign shipping in the South China Sea, including a US Navy surveillance vessel.
China, Vietnam and the Philippines have traded diplomatic barbs recently over maritime claims to the resource-rich island groups. Vietnam’s navy conducted live fire exercises on Monday after accusing Chinese boats of disrupting oil and gas exploration in its waters.
Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama gave assurance that no provocative actions would be made in the West Philippine Sea.
He said the Navy would implement pro-active defense measures all within its territorial waters in the area.
The Humabon, which has 68 crewmembers and eight officers, was docked Thursday at the Poro Point seaport here before sailing to the Scarborough Shoal.
“We will observe and check if there are security threats in the area and also to inspect if there are illegal poachers taking advantage in our jurisdiction,” said the ship’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Celestino Abalayan.
Abalayan was quick to clarify that their mission has nothing to do with the issue on the Spratlys. He said they were just on routine patrol.
Scarborough Shoal is situated in the West Philippine Sea, 198 kilometers west of Subic Bay with an estimated area of 150 square kilometers. The Shoal, which is rich in maritime resources, is also being claimed by China.
Pama also said the Navy, along with other military units committed to secure the country’s territorial waters in Palawan, will maintain its presence within the Kalayaan Island Group, part of the island group of the Spratlys occupied by the Philippines.
“We will strictly adhere to our rules of engagement and if a shooting war breaks out (among contending forces in the Spratlys) in the area, it will not start or come from us first,” Pama said.
Pama though stressed the mandate of the troops to stand down against possible armed hostilities.
“We are not to going start (the shooting) but it is also within our right to defend ourselves. We could not just scamper away or simply watch them (foreign forces) shooting at us,” Pama said.
Pama brushed aside suggestions that the Philippine Navy should also take an aggressive stance and take the cue from Vietnam conducting live fire exercises in the region.
“We are doing our own. We have our own strategy. We have our own (military) plan,” Pama said but declined to elaborate.
The Philippine Navy has taken the aggressive measure of dismantling the markers presumably placed by China on some of the islands and reefs that are within the country’s territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea.
Pama said removal of the markers would continue with the assistance of the Philippine Coast Guard.
“We are doing these operations if only to emphasize that these markers are within the country’s exclusive economic zone,” Pama said.