China has for the first time sent a search-and-rescue ship to be permanently stationed at one of its man-made islands in the disputed Spratly chain of the South China Sea, state media reported.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported Saturday that the Nan Hai Jiu 115 would start its duties as soon as it arrived at Subi Reef, the largest of China’s seven man-made outposts in the Spratlys and home to a lighthouse and extensive docking facilities.

Xinhua said the vessel, which can deploy medium-sized rescue helicopters, was expected to arrive at Subi Reef around Monday. It said the deployment is the first time that the country’s rescue force had been stationed to the Spratlys, after massive dredging operations began there in 2013.

Wang Zhenliang, director of the rescue and salvage bureau under the Transport Ministry, was quoted by Xinhua as saying China would work to improve its search and rescue operations in the Spratlys and surrounding areas “to better fulfill its maritime rescue duties and obligations under international conventions.”

Du Haipeng, an official within the bureau, told Xinhua that China would continue to build large rescue ships with longer range and more advanced equipment and technology. At the same time, the country would deploy helicopters with better and faster rescue capabilities, he added.

Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

As part of what some experts say is a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea, three of Beijing’s man-made islets in the Spratly chain — Subi, Fiery Cross and Mischief reefs — all boast military-grade airfields. Recent reports have also said the islets have emplacements for missiles, extensive storage facilities and a range of installations that can track satellites, foreign military activity and communications.

China has said the facilities are for defensive purposes and that the islands themselves are civilian and will provide navigational services to ships in the vicinity. But some observers have expressed concern that the moves could help boost Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over the islets.

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