China rejected Friday claims made by the Philippines that Beijing sent survey ships into the latter’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. On Thursday, the Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Chinese ships were found in recent months near its coast and a warship was spotted 70 miles off its western coast in the South China Sea.
Lorenzana said satellite images showed Chinese ships for three months in 2016 in Benham Rise, an area the United Nations has declared a territory of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
“Last year, they [Chinese ships] were monitored there for about three months,” 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.”
However, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang dismissed the concern, saying the Chinese vessels had right to freedom of navigation in the waters.
“But this is purely carrying out normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage, and there were no so-called other activities or operations,” Geng said. “Comments from individuals in the Philippines on this do not accord with the facts.”
To the northeast of Luzon is the Western Pacific, where China is increasingly carrying out military drills.
The two countries both make claims to the South China Sea, a region that has long been disputed. China has laid claims to almost all of the South China Sea region, upsetting its other claimants, which include Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. The country has also built runways and ports on some islands in the region, claiming it adds to the safety of the region through which about $5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes every year.
In February, Wang Guoqing, a spokesman for the fifth session of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea is more important to China than for any other country. His comments came after the U.S. sent its aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea.