MANILA (Reuters) - Japan on Thursday delivered to the Philippines the first of 10 coastguard vessels to help it improve its maritime security and law enforcement in the South China Sea where tension has been rising over a territorial dispute with China.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea where about $5 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.
Japan has no claims in the waterway but worries about China's growing military reach across sea lanes through which much of Japan's trade passes.
Philippine coastguard chief Rear Admiral William Melad said the 44-metre (144-foot) vessel from Japan would be sent out to sea on patrols and law enforcement operations.
"It can be used for maritime security operations but it's not for combat," Melad told reporters.
The boat would also be used for humanitarian work and disaster relief operations. Japan will supply nine more of the vessels under a 7.3 billion peso ($158 million) soft loan agreement.
Melad did not mention China but its increasingly assertive claims in disputed South China Sea waters pose for the Philippines its most pressing security concern.
China has dredged up sand and built up reefs to make seven islands in the Spratly islands, some with port facilities and air strips.
China says is has the right to do whatever work it wants on its territory, and its aims are entirely peaceful, but an arbitration court in The Hague last month rejected China's historic claim to the South China Sea.
China did not participate in and has refused to accept the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Japan and the Philippines are in talks about two more large coastguard ships worth about 10 billion pesos ($215 million) and the lease of four TC-90 surveillance aircraft.
Japan has also warming relations with Vietnam, promising to help strengthen its coastguard with training, vessels and other equipment.
Philippine coastguard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said the force would be expanded over the next two years with the recruitment of 6,000 more personnel and the acquisition of more boats and aircraft from the United States to protect the country's exclusive economic zone.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Robert Birsel)