MANILA, Philippines – Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines will monitor the movements of China's "magical island-maker," a massive dredging ship capable of building artificial islands similar to what Beijing has already built in the South China Sea.
"We have reports that they launched their big dredger but we don't know where it is going. We are constantly monitoring the movement of this ship," Lorenzana said on Monday, November 6.
Lorenzana said he is not worried yet. But he said the mere presence of the ship in the West Philippine Sea will definitely be a concern.
"Wala pa masyado siguro [concern] because wala pa naman ginagawa yung dredger na 'yan (We're not so concerned yet because the dredger has not done anything). Where it is going? What will it do? We do not know," said Lorenzana.
The 140-meter-long ship named Tian Kun Hao is said to be the biggest dredger vessel in Asia. Its maker dubbed it the "magical island-maker."
International security observers are worried it could be deployed to the South China Sea, particularly to reclaim Scarborough Shoal. The rocky sandbar off the coast of Zambales province in the Philippines is widely believed to be the red line for the US.
In Congress, Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano also raised concerns. “The Tian Kun Hao is quite alarming in itself. This newest addition in China’s maritime arsenal provides increased and faster capacity to dredge and reclaim lands,” he said in a statement on Sunday.
“It would make it easier for China to build artificial islands and reclaim more reefs. Take for instance what China did when it reclaimed its 7 reefs in 2013 to 2016. Given the earlier aggressive reclamation activities of China, one cannot help but be alarmed on what this massive dredger could do,” Alejano added.
In Manila, there are concerns about China's activities near Philippine-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu) Island. Chinese fishermen have been spotted around sandbars that have served as traditional fishing ground to Filipinos there. (READ: Envoy insists on China's rights to fish around Pag-asa)
Lorenzana said the government is also in touch with China over developments in the area. President Rodrigo Duterte warmed ties with Beijing after years of conflict over the maritime territories. (WATCH: Duterte's defense chief asserts claim to the West PH Sea)
Lorenzana said the Philippines is okay with the presence of Chinese fishermen there but he gave assurances that troops continue to monitor if China launches other activities on Philippine-occupied territories.
"We have our ships going there. We also have our aerial patrol going regularly, so we will be able to monitor the movement of this so-called very big dredger ship," Lorenzana said.