BEIJING (UPDATED) - "Combat ready" Chinese naval and aerial patrols have been deployed to the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea to protect Beijing's interests, the Chinese Defense Ministry said Thursday.
Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said China will "resolutely oppose any militarily provocative behavior" from other countries also claiming ownership of the Spratlys.
"In order to protect national sovereignty and our security and development interests, the Chinese military has already set up a normal, combat-ready patrol system in seas under our control," he said.
"The Chinese military's resolve and will to defend territorial sovereignty and protect our maritime rights and interests is firm and unshakeable," Geng added.
Vietnam has launched regular air patrols over the Spratly Islands.
Four aircraft, including two Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets, were deployed to the area on June 15, according to Vietnam's Thanh Nien News.
The Philippine Air Force, meanwhile, has deployed reconnaissance aircraft to Scarborough shoal just off Zambales that China is also claiming.
China is involved in a long-running dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines about ownership of islands and atolls in the West Philippine Sea. Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims.
The simmering tension between China and the Philippines over Scarborough has eased in recent weeks but Chinese vessels were spotted again at Scarborough shoal this week, prompting concern that the dispute may flare up again.
The Chinese Defense Ministry also announced Thursday that the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) top officials are considering establishing a "presence" in the new city of Sansha (City of Three Sands), which was set up to govern the Nansha (Spratlys), Xisha (Paracels), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) islands.
Geng said in press conference that China may set up local military command organs in the islands, state news agency Xinhua said.
The State Council, or China's Cabinet, has approved the establishment of the prefectural-level city of Sansha to administer the Spratlys, the Paracels, and Macclesfield Bank, with the government seat to be stationed on Yongxing Island in the Paracels, a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs said.
At stake is control over what are believed to be significant reserves of oil and gas.
CNOOC, China's offshore oil specialist, said on its website last weekend that it would invite foreign partners to explore jointly and develop nine blocks just off Vietnam this year.
On Tuesday, Vietnam said CNOOC's plan was "illegal" and the blocks encroached its territorial waters.
At a regular briefing on Wednesday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, insisted that the tenders were in accord with Chinese and international law and urged Vietnam not to escalate the dispute.
PLA among '9 dragons stirring up the sea'
According to a recent analysis made by the International Crisis Group, the PLA is just one of the many Chinese government agencies involved in an internal power struggle over the Spratlys and the West Philippine Sea.
"China is one of its own worst enemies in the South China Sea as its local governments and agencies struggle for power and money, inflaming tensions with its neighbors, illustrated by Beijing’s latest standoff with the Philippines," the Crisis Group said in a study published in April this year.
“Some agencies are acting assertively to compete for a slice of the budget pie, while others such as local governments are focused on economic growth, leading them to expand their activities into disputed waters," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project Director. “Their motivations are domestic in nature, but the impact of their actions is increasingly international."
The study said the Chinese Foreign Ministry should be the lead body coordinating Beijing's policy in the sea.
"But the ministry lacks the power and authority to control the agencies, including five law enforcement bodies, local governments and private sector actors," it explained.
This has resulted in law enforcement and paramilitary ships independently plying the disputed waters just west of the Philippines.
According to the study, the top "dragons" claiming a piece of the Spratlys pie are the Bureau of Fisheries Administration, the China Marine Surveillance, the local governments, the Foreign Ministry, and the PLA Navy.
The other agencies include China's energy companies, the National Tourism Administration, the environmental protection ministry, the Coast Guard, the Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau, and the Maritime Safety Administration.
The Defense Ministry's announcement Thursday may indicate that Chinese leaders have chosen the PLA Navy as the lead "dragon" in the country's bid to claim the Spratlys. - with a report from Reuters