Philippines to boost Spratly patrols

MANILA, April 15, 2011 (AFP) - The Philippine military said Friday it planned to use a new US-made vessel to boost patrols in disputed South China Sea waters, amid a flare-up in tensions with China over rival claims.

The navy was looking to use the modern Hamilton-class patrol craft, recently bought from the United States, around the Philippine-claimed area of the Spratly archipelago, military spokesman Brigadier-General Jose Mabanta said.

"That's one of the possible areas. We really have to secure some of our possessions, and the Spratlys is one of our possessions," Mabanta told AFP when asked where the vessel would be deployed.

Mabanta said a Philippine navy crew was currently in the United States training to operate the patrol craft, and that it was expected to arrive in June.

The US navy describes the Hamilton as a high endurance cutter with close-in weapons systems.

The Philippine navy has a tiny and old fleet compared with China.

The Philippine fleet is made up of recommissioned former US navy vessels, headlined by Rajah Humabon, a Cannon-class destroyer escort that was built during World War II and is one of the world's oldest operational warships.

The Philippines and China, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, claim all or part of the Spratlys, which are believed to sit on vast mineral resources and lie near vital sea lanes.

The dispute flared up again last month when Manila complained that Chinese patrol boats had harassed a Philippine oil exploration vessel in disputed waters near the Spratlys.

The Philippines later announced plans to pursue oil exploration in the area and to upgrade its military airfield on one of the islands, and lodged a formal protest at the United Nations over China's claims.

Amid the flare-up China has repeatedly reiterated its exclusive claims to all the disputed areas and their adjacent waters, much of which are much closer to Philippine land than Chinese.

The United States considers the Philippines a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation military ally and the two countries are bound by a 1951 mutual defence pact.

China has repeatedly told the United States it has no right to be involved in the Spratlys dispute.

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