One of China’s largest civilian patrol ships is crossing through the South China Sea, where tensions are heightened because of territorial disputes over islands believed to sit on top of huge oil and gas deposits.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Haixun 31 has already left from its home base in southern Guangdong province.
He said it is heading to Singapore on what he described as a regular visit.
Disputes in the South China Sea
1988, March - China sinks three Vietnamese vessels near the Spratly Islands, killing more than 70 Vietnamese.
1991 - China passes the Law on Territorial Waters and Their Contiguous Areas, laying out its claim to territorial sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
1995, 1999 - The Philippines discovers Chinese constructions on Mischief Reef, an island located in the Spratly Island chain. Despite efforts to resolve the dispute, more structures are found on the reef in 1999. Manila says the structures are a military installation while Beijing says they are for fishermen.
2002 - China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations sign a non-binding Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
2009, March – Chinese ships and fishermen harass a U.S. naval vessel in the South China Sea. According to the Pentagon, the Chinese vessels harassed the Impeccable, about 120 kilometers off Hainan island, south of China.
2011, May – Chinese vessels cut an exploration cable on a Vietnamese oil survey ship in waters, within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone.
2011, June - The Philippines complains that Chinese ships offloaded building materials and erected marker posts on reefs to the west of its island of Palawan, within Manila's exclusive economic zone.
The voyage marks the first time Chinese authorities have sent a large patrol boat to visit a foreign country, although other nations routinely carry-out such missions as a way to improve relations.
The route to Singapore is expected to take the Haixun 31 near areas in which similar Chinese patrol boats were involved in recent incidents that raised tensions with the Philippines and Vietnam.
The main territorial dispute in the South China Sea involves the Spratly Islands, which are near key shipping lanes and are believed to sit on top of huge deposits of oil and gas.
China’s claims to the islands overlap with claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China in recent weeks has traded heated words about the maritime dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam. Earlier this week Hanoi held live-fire naval exercises.
Chinese media reports about the patrol ship did not specifically mention territorial disputes. But they did emphasize that the voyage is aimed at demonstrating Beijing’s resolve to defend its territorial claims.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has largely pushed a multilateral solution to the Spratly dispute.
The Chinese spokesman indicated his country still prefers to deal with each claimant individually.
He says China wants to resolve South China Sea disputes through direct negotiations and is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. He said this position will, in his words, never change.
Legislation in the U.S. Congress condemns China for its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and urges a peaceful, multilateral, resolution.