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China has been sending survey ships into waters belonging to the Philippines, and America’s long-time Pacific ally is deeply concerned.
Chinese ships have been spotted near Benham Rise, which sits about 150 miles off the east coast of the main island of Luzon, and Reed Bank in the South China Sea.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called China’s actions "very concerning," adding that the ships, which showed up last year, have been engaging in abnormal behavior.
The survey vessels stay in one place for about a month, sometimes longer, without doing anything. Lorenzana suspects that the ships might be "surveying the seabed." Lorenzana told reporters that he has received reports indicating that China may be "looking for a place to put submarines."
The Chinese ships may also be analyzing water depths to prepare submarine routes into the Pacific. In December, China sent long-range bomber squadrons, as well as a carrier battle group, into the Western Pacific. To further project power beyond the first island chain, China may be investigating new opportunities for its submarines.
Chinese nuclear submarines operate out of Hainan Island. "For these submarines’ missiles to pose a first or second strike threat to the continental US, they must transit the South China Sea and enter the Western Pacific," Malcolm Cook, senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, explained in a report last year. "Their most suitable route would be through the Luzon Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan."
While reasonable, China’s interests may not be related to military strategy. The waters around Benham Rise are believed to be rich in natural resources, specifically mineral and natural gas deposits.
Reed Bank is claimed by both Beijing and Manila, but Benham Rise is situated in Philippine waters recognized as such by the United Nations. "I have ordered the navy that if they see this service ship this year, to start to accost them and drive them away," Lorenzana revealed to reporters.
Manila has demanded an explanation from China on Friday.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said on Friday that the Chinese ships were simply practicing freedom of navigation and that no other actions were taken.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last summer, he has reached out to the Chinese on several occasions. Although bilateral relations have improved, Lorenzana has remained suspicious of Chinese activities in nearby waters.