BEIJING • China has deployed three new ships to naval forces stationed in the South China Sea over the weekend, suggesting an enhanced capability for maritime support in the disputed waters, the media reported yesterday.
This came amid speculation that China has started mass production of its first stealth fighter, the J-20.
The three ships - transport and supply ship Luguhu, electronic reconnaissance ship Haiwangxing and pelagic survey ship Qianxuesen - began servicing the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy stationed in the Spratly Islands last Friday, according to Navy Today, the PLA Navy's official magazine.
The magazine said the supply ship Luguhu can also provide medical aid at sea, while Haiwangxing is capable of reconnaissance missions under any weather condition. The survey ship will mainly carry out measurement missions at sea and the islands, and can do so for an extended period of time, the magazine added.
The deployment of the three ships came as about 50 Philippine protesters, mostly students, last Saturday reached a disputed Philippine-held island in the Spratly archipelago.
China was "strongly dissatisfied" over what the Filipinos had done, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Monday, reiterating that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.
"We once again urge the Philippines to withdraw all its personnel and facilities from the islands that it is illegally occupying, and refrain from actions that are detrimental to regional peace and stability and not conducive to Sino-Philippines relations," Mr Lu said.
China claims nearly all the South China Sea, believed to have huge oil and gas deposits, and through which about US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes yearly. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
Besides modernising its navy, China is trying to strengthen its air force by developing stealth fighters.
Xinhua news agency released a blurry photo of a plane similar to J-20 prototypes on Sunday, saying it "may indicate the J-20 has moved from the test flight period to initial mass production". It said it was previously estimated the J-20 would go into production only from next year.
The J-20, believed to be powered by a relatively weak engine from Russia, is not expected to match the United States' F-22 in performance any time soon, said the South China Morning Post. But it is believed China is developing a stronger engine for the J-20, and some estimates indicate it could be ready in 2019.