03/16/2009, 00.00
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China sends former warship to patrol contested Spratly Islands

The Spratly and Paracel islands are contested by China, the Philippines, and other countries. Last week, the Filipino parliament claimed sovereignty over some of the islands. Now there is fear of an armed confrontation, with unpredictable results.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Since yesterday, a 4,450 ton Chinese ship has been navigating around the Paracel Islands (in Chinese: Xisha) in the South China Sea, after a new Filipino law last week declared Manila's sovereignty over these. The islands are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, while the nearby Spratly Islands are claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei, which want exploit the rich oil and mineral reserves beneath the sea bed.

Official Chinese sources say that the ship China Yuzheng 311, a former military ship and now one of the most powerful patrol boats, departed a week ago and is intended only to "protect fishing vessels . . . in China's southernmost maritime territory." It is not known whether the Chinese ship is armed.

In addition to having extensive energy resources, the area is also one of the busiest shipping routes.

Beijing has defined as "illegal and invalid" the new Filipino law claiming sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. For his part, Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Badawi paid a visit on March 5 to the Danwan Reef in the Spratly Islands, claiming sovereignty over this.

In 2002, China and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed an agreement rejecting military confrontation, and pledging support for a peaceful solution for the South China Sea. Now the Filipino foreign minister has called on "all sides" of the agreement to observe their commitments.

But experts note that an increasing confrontation is taking place among countries with a stake in the area, and the developments of this are unpredictable.

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