MANILA -- A Chinese gunship ran aground at a shoal at the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea, prompting the deployment of naval vessels to the area to look into the incident.
The Sydney Morning Herald said the Chinese ship, a Jianghu-class frigate no. 560, ran aground at the unoccupied Half Moon Shoal or Hasa-hasa shoal on Thursday night. It said the ship remains "thoroughly stuck."
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin confirmed the incident, citing initial information received. However, the defense chief did not give details on the events leading to the incident at the shoal, which is only about 60 nautical miles from Rizal town in Palawan.
"Our action there is that we had it investigated by the Wescom (Western Command). We sent assets there so that it can be investigated into the report, what really happened," Gazmin said.
Gazmin said the investigation will establish "why the ship is there, if it ran aground."
Commodore Rustom Peña, commander of the Naval Forces West, said the incident may have indeed occurred Thursday.
"We can only suppose that it ran aground last night because the incident was reported to me just this morning," said Peña.
A military official said the Chinese ship is a guided missile frigate that is monitored by the military to be constantly moving around the disputed territory, including at the Chinese-occupied Mischief and Subi reefs, also in Spratlys.
"Its presence is consistent at the Mischief Reef and Subic Reef, which are Chinese occupied, and at the unoccupied Quirino Atoll. Apparently, the area is its AOR (area of responsibility)," a military official said on condition of anonymity.
"In fairness to the Chinese, they have not made any new occupation since the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, though they have fortified some of the areas that they have previously occupied," the official also said.
The Spratlys is a chain of islands and islets that are believed to be rich in oil and minerals deposits. The area is being claimed in part or in whole by the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
In April, a standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships occurred at the Scarborough Shoal off Zambales when two Chinese surveillance vessels prevented a Philippine Navy vessel from arresting Chinese fishermen caught gathering corals, live sharks and giant clams.
President Benigno Aquino III ordered the withdrawal of two Philippine ships from the shoal last month at the height of Tropical Storm Butchoy. As of last week, three Chinese government vessels remained in the area. (VR/Sunnex)