The Philippine government on Monday expressed opposition to China’s recent test of a newly completed runway on a Manila-claimed reef in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said that Fiery Cross or Kagitingan Reef is part of the Kalayaan Island Group that belongs to the Philippines.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs is considering lodging a protest in due course,” Jose told reporters.
“The test flight of China in Kagitingan Reef has definitely raised tensions in the region,” he added.
China defended its move, saying the flight test was conducted to ensure that the reef it now occupies and transformed into an artificial island with a runway adheres to safety aviation standards.
China has asserted its claim over nearly the entire South China Sea and has built man-made islands on seven reefs, including Fiery Cross.
Besides Kagitingan, China built artificial islands on Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes) reefs, all claimed by the Philippines and within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone recognized under Unclos.
“Our case has been submitted and the arbitral tribunal is currently studying its merits after affirming that it has jurisdiction. We are studying the ramifications of the most recent incident in Fiery Reef as we prepare the diplomatic protest that we will file shortly,” Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said in a text message.
Vietnam also protested the flight test but Beijing rejected it, maintaining that the operation took place within Chinese territory.
Vietnam also claims the Fiery Cross reef.
China has asserted its claim to almost all of the South China Sea by rapidly building artificial islands including airstrips said to be capable of hosting military jets.
It began work in 2014 on a 3,000-meter runway on the reef.
Hua said the test flight was civilian in nature.
Hanoi earlier strongly protested at the flight, labeling it a violation of sovereignty which “influences peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
“Vietnam resolutely protests China’s above-mentioned action, asking China to immediately end while not repeating similar move,” said foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh in Hanoi.
Vietnamese officials also said they had asked Beijing to investigate the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a suspected Chinese boat.
The fishermen were around 60 nautical miles from Con Co Island in central Quang Tri province on Friday when a foreign boat crashed into their craft.
The 11 crew members were rescued but the boat sank.
The captain was quoted as saying that he saw Chinese characters on the foreign boat.
Several other claimants have also built facilities in the South China Sea but at a slower pace than China.
Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the Sea, home to strategic shipping lanes as well as substantial oil and gas reserves.