China’s Navy has reportedly challenged a US surveillance plane that was flying over the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea] and ordered it to “go away,” the international cable news channel CNN reported on Thursday.
“Foreign military aircraft, this is the Chinese Navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately,” a radio operator told the US crew.
Philippine Air Force flight crew also experienced getting warnings from China recently.
A CNN reporting team was also on board the US surveillance flight.
According to CNN, it was the first time for the Pentagon (US Department of Defense) to allow a TV news crew to join an actual surveillance mission that used a P8-A Poseidon, the most advanced surveillance aircraft in the US arsenal.
During the flight, the US military pilots were ordered out of the airspace eight times.
“We were just challenged 30 minutes ago and the challenge came from the Chinese Navy, and I’m highly confident it came from ashore, this facility here,” Capt. Mike Parker, the flight commander, told CNN as he pointed to a radar station on the Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef.
Kagitingan Reef, which lies within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, was occupied by China in 1988 after a Unesco Inter-governmental Oceanographic Commission meeting in March 1987 where it was agreed that Beijing would be allowed to build weather stations in the South China Sea as part of a global oceanic survey. Beijing chose to build the weather station on Kagitingan Reef.
The US surveillance flight recording disclosed that the Chinese have since built military-style barracks, an air traffic control tower and a long runway.
Satellite images released in March and April show China’s effort to convert reefs into artificial islands.
“There’s obviously a lot of surface traffic down there: Chinese warships, Chinese Coast Guard ships. They have air search radars, so there’s a pretty good bet they’re tracking us,” Lt. Cmdr. Matt Newman told CNN.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Thursday said it was still confirming the incident.
DFA spokesman Charles Jose noted that if the such incident was proven correct, it would again highlight growing challenges that the Philippines is facing in the South China Sea.
“Efforts to enforce control within the nine-dash line … have no basis in international law.
“We, therefore, reiterate the call for all concerned parties to clarify the basis of their claims, and avoid action that violates the spirit of the DOC [Declaration on the Code of Conduct],” Jose said.
An official of the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) criticized China over the incident.
“The incident shows the extent to which China is willing to disregard international laws and freedom of flight and navigation,” DND spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.
“It is highly regrettable that they impose their self-serving rules even in clearly established international airspace. These actions further increase risk of irreparable miscalculations and untoward incidents,” he added.
An analyst said the Philippines needs to be “cold and calculative” and open itself to back-channel negotiations in dealing with China in the West Philippine Sea dispute.
Dr. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, warned that the Philippines must be careful on how it deals with China.
“In a way, we need to be a bit less hot and scandalous, a lot more cold and calculative,” he said in a lecture on Wednesday.
Batongbacal added that the Philippines must also stop provoking China by playing up in the media the tensions raised by the sea row.
In the mid-1990s, he said, China already warned the Philippines “to please not play it up in the media too much because they will be unable to control the reaction from home.”
“That’s what we are seeing right now, exactly what they said they feared,” Batongbacal added.