Philippines to keep wary eye on new Chinese dredger

MANILA, Nov 6 (Reuters) - The Philippines expressed concern on Monday about China’s testing of a massive dredging ship, saying it would track its activities closely, despite Beijing’s assurances it would not develop areas where it has competing claims with Manila.

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 is a little bit concerning,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters. “Where it is going, we do not know.”

Military officials said the ship, Tian Kun, had a deck the size of nine basketball courts and would become 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. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the area.

Lorenzana said troops deployed on nine Philippine-claimed features in the South China Sea had been 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.”

China has equipped its manmade islands with runways, hangars and surface-to-air-missiles. Some experts say it will land its first deployments of jet fighters on the Spratly islands runways in coming months.

That has all been of concern to the United States, which has carried out what it calls “freedom of navigation” patrols in the region, ostensibly to try to undermine China’s military expansion in disputed areas far from its shores.

The testing of the dredger comes ahead of two major international meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines next week, which are to be attended by China and the United States.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has good ties with China and remains confident it will honour a commitment by Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping not to develop the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed rocky outcrop and a prime regional fishing patch.

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Writing by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez