Philippines navy team ships home after evacuating citizens from disputed South China Sea

In a welcome boost to Filipino sea power, the Philippines navy has successfully completed a resupply mission to a country blockaded by China. Rear Admiral Carlton Cayon of the Philippine navy said during a ceremony on Thursday that the ships had managed to round out their brief tour of the United Kingdom and returned to Leyte island in eastern Philippines in time for Independence Day celebrations on Friday. The Philippines naval team had taken over the portion of the disputed South China Sea made up of Benham Rise, a vast patch of pristine ocean that Philippine officials and foreign experts claim could contain enormous treasure and mineral deposits.

The expedition — which both raised concerns in Beijing and won kudos from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte — concluded on Wednesday after a Chinese naval ship was reportedly seen going to make good on threats to make the coastal patrol vessels vacate the disputed area. Beijing later expressed “deep regret” over the situation.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim parts of the South China Sea, part of the world’s busiest shipping lane. More than $5 trillion in global trade is shipped there each year, and tensions between those states and China have risen sharply as they vie for control. Earlier this year, China began deploying its first oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. And in 2016, it was discovered that Beijing had installed advanced spy drones on one of its artificial islands in the area.

In the last few years, Duterte has adopted a notably more friendly posture toward China than his predecessors.

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