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China sent ships near Philippine-administered island, think tank says

By Elizabeth Shim
China sent ships near Philippine-administered island, think tank says
An aerial shot of Pagasa or Thitu Island in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea. File Pool Photo by Erik De Castro/EPA

Feb. 8 (UPI) -- China may have been quietly responding to new Philippine construction in the South China Sea with deployments of ships from Subi Reef, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

According to AMTI this week, China has previously deployed a "large fleet" of ships from Subi Reef, more than 12 nautical miles southwest of Thitu Island, which the Philippines has been developing.

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Thitu Island was recently in the news. On Monday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the construction of a bleaching ramp would be completed in 2019. According to AMTI's satellite imagery analysis, the Philippines halted runway repairs in May 2018, as Chinese vessels began to gather in the vicinity.

"A handful of Chinese vessels have operated in the area between Subi and Thitu since at least July 2018, likely in response to the initial Philippine effort to start runway repairs last May," the report states.

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Projects on Thitu were made public in April 2017 in the Philippines, the South China Morning Post reported Friday.

Lorenzana attributed construction delays to logistics, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer earlier this week.

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"The problem with Pagasa is that you have to bring in everything you need for its repair -- steel bars, sand, gravel, heavy equipment," Lorenzana had said.

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"You need a beaching ramp to bring these in...So I believe it should be finished by the first quarter of this year, this beaching ramp."

He also criticized Chinese buildup on Fiery Cross Reef.

Chinese activities in the South China Sea have been strongly condemned by the United States, but the issue has not been at the forefront.

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CNBC reported Thursday Trump administration officials are preoccupied with working out a China trade deal, ahead of a March 2 deadline. Tariffs on Chinese goods are set to double automatically after March 1 in the absence of a presidential order.

That outcome is unlikely, however. Tariffs could remain at the current 10 percent rate, or selectively rolled back, according to the report.

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