Chinese forces attempted to drive away two planes carrying Philippine military chiefs visiting the South China Sea after reports that Filipino fishermen had been shot at by Chinese coast guards.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Chinese warned the aircraft they were entering the periphery of Chinese installations. However, they continued on course after pilots replied that they were in fact flying over Philippine territory.
The C-130 aircraft carrying Lorenzana, military chief of staff General Eduardo Ano and about 40 journalists to Philippine-held Pag-asa Island were challenged as they flew past Chinese-held Subi Reef, just 15 miles away.
“Those were just exchanges and no untoward incident happened,” Lorenzana said.
As we have previously reported, the Chinese have similarly warned US ships and aircraft to leave what Beijing claims as its territory, messages which the Americans also ignored.
On Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, Lorenzana announced that the Philippines would develop the island, with plans for a wharf and upgraded airstrip.
Asked what he thought of China’s rapidly developed Subi Reef near Pag-asa, Lorenzana he was “awed”.
“A grudging admiration to the Chinese for their resolve and single-mindedness to bolster their claims,” he said. “I wished we had the same.”
China claims virtually the entire sea and has aggressively fortified its presence by transforming reefs into militarised island outposts.
The visit was also to investigate reports that Filipino fishermen were harassed by Chinese coast guards near Union Bank a few days ago.
Lorenzana said authorities had yet to get the fishermen’s statements, but if true, the Philippines would file a diplomatic protest with China.
Duterte himself had planned to visit Pag-asa to raise his country’s flag when the Philippines celebrates its Independence Day on June 12, but dropped the plan after China raised concerns.
After a flag-raising ceremony on Pag-asa, Lorenzana told troops that Duterte had ordered him to inspect the island and ensure facilities are built there as soon as possible.
About 1.6 billion pesos ($32 million) has been earmarked for the upgrades on the island, which is also claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.