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June 23, 2017

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Philippines welcomes latest warship

MANILA -- Philippine President Benigno Aquino vowed on Tuesday a stronger military defense of his country's South China Sea claims as the navy's newest warship sailed into Manila Bay from the United States.

"This ship symbolizes our newly acquired ability to guard, protect, and if necessary, fight for the interests of our country," Aquino said as the refurbished Hamilton-class cutter Gregorio del Pilar dropped anchor.

"This is just the beginning. Expect more good news because we will not stop at one ship."

Aquino said the former U.S. Coast Guard cutter, now the Philippine navy's flagship vessel, would protect the country's exclusive economic zone and its oil and gas exploration activities in the South China Sea.

"This will upgrade our capability to guard our exclusive economic zone as well as the (oil and gas) service contract areas," he said in a welcoming speech.

Many of those areas are claimed by China, which insists it has sovereign rights to almost all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.

Other parts of the sea, which is reputedly rich in mineral resources and straddles vital sea lanes, are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The competing claims have for decades made the sea one of Asia's most dangerous potential military flashpoints, and tensions flared this year after the Philippines and Vietnam accused China of becoming increasingly aggressive.

The Philippines said the Chinese navy had fired warning shots at Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea, harassed an oil exploration vessel and put up markers on Philippine islets.

As the row escalated, the Philippines appealed to longtime ally the United States for help in beefing up its poorly equipped military, with Aquino saying his country could not contain China on its own.

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