President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Monday said Philippine military and civilian aircraft will continue flying in the airspace over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“We will still fly the routes that we fly based on the international law from the various conventions we entered into,” Aquino told reporters.
The issue arose after international news channel CNN reported an incident last week where a US Navy surveillance aircraft was challenged on radio by the Chinese Navy and told the pilot to “go away” as it claimed that the flight is getting near its “military alert zone.”
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own.
Sattelite images released recently showed that China has been reclaiming land in the disputed areas and is building artificial islands, which a US military official had called as “The Great Wall of Sand.”
The recent flight, which also had a CNN reporting team on board, further validated reports that China is turning Kagitingan Reef into a military base. A runway, an air-traffic control tower and a radar station were among the facilities filmed in the spy flight.
Aquino said the Philippines will not give up its territory to China, even as he acknowledged major differences in the capabilities of their militaries.
“We will still exercise our rights over our exclusive economic zone,” he added.
“Bottomline is, it has to be clear, we will defend our rights to the best of our abilities.”
The President said the US and the Philippines share an undisclosed plan in dealing with the heightening tension caused by China’s aggressive acts in the West Philippine Sea.
“Even in basketball, you don’t reveal all your moves to the other coach,” he added.
Philippine Air Force (PAF) spokesman Col. Enrico Canaya said its aircraft also passed through the flight path taken by the US Navy plane. He declined to give more details but early last month it was reported that an unarmed PAF aircraft that was on its way to Pagasa island was challenged by a Chinese warship.
The Philippine civil aviation authority said local carriers also flew over parts of the sea that were considered international air lanes.
Aquino said Manila will continue to pursue arbitration before the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea and the formulation of a Code of Conduct among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries, especially those with claims in the Spratlys like Vietnam.
He again turned down proposals to convene the National Security Council (NSC), explaining that preparations being undertaken by the Cabinet security cluster are “adequate.”
The President noted that while it is his duty to decide on foreign policy issues, “we are trying to get as many voices from the different branches of government to have different perspectives and come up with the best solution to this problem.”
A Defense department official, meanwhile, said the suggestion to bring back US military bases in the Philippines to ward off China’s continued aggression has its merits, but will face rough sailing because of constitutional constraints.
Arsenio Andolong, director of the Department of National Defense (DND) Public Affairs Service, said even if some sectors push for the return of the US bases, the Philippine Constitution does not allow it.
“His argument has merits although we have to remember that we have constraints in our Constitution which prohibits the establishment of foreign military bases on Philippine soil,” said Andolong in reaction to the earlier proposal of Rep. Rodel Batocabe of Ako Bicol party-list.
The legislator said presence of the US military in the country would promote regional peace and stability in area and could force China to negotiate with the Philippines on issues on the disputed waterways.
He raised the possibility of expanding the coverage of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to secure the country’s sovereignty without violating the Constitution.
Andolong said officials are gravely concerned with the speed and magnitude at which the Chinese are reclaiming shoals and islets in the West Philippine Sea.
He would not directly say that the US presence would somehow deflect the Chinese activities, but cited that when US military bases were still present in the Philippines, China was not aggressive in its actions.