China’s threats to US and Philippine aircraft recorded over disputed waters

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South China Sea
A map showing the overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea.

The Chinese Navy has been recorded threatening Philippine and US military aircraft operating over the South China Sea.

A US Navy plane overheard China’s radio message to the Philippines during a surveillance flight of a P-8A Poseidon aircraft over the Spratly Islands on Friday (August 10).

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An angry voice was heard saying: “Philippine military aircraft! I’m warning you again. Leave immediately or you will bear responsibility for all the consequences!”

The words were recorded by a journalist from the BBC who was invited to join a surveillance flight to witness China’s expansion in the Spratly Islands from 16,500ft above.

The BBC’s correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes drew attention to the difference in tone between the warnings issued to US and Philippine aircraft.

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He said: “We overhear a warning to Philippine aircraft. This time, they are not as nearly as polite.”

The US plane flew over four of China’s artificial islands — Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Zamora (Subi Reef), Panganiban Reef (Mischief), and Mabini (Johnson) Reef.

The report said the Chinese issued at least five warnings during the flight. But these were more measured in tone to the ones issued to the Philippine aircraft. They said: “Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding.”

The consistent US response was: “This is United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state and exercising these rights is guaranteed by international law. I am operating with due regard for the rights and duties of all states.”

US pilot Lieutenant Matt Johnson said the warnings were a “routine occurrence” and they had no effect on their operations.

Philippine defence and military officials are yet to issue any comment on the BBC’s report.

Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Australian-based Lowy Institute, also noted the “striking” difference of China’s approach to the Philippines and US.

“The more menacing tone of PLA [People’s Liberation Army] warning to Philippine aircraft, compared to US aircraft, is striking. Calibrated to intimidate smaller, weaker states?” he wrote on Twitter.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters close to the shores of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

In July 2016, the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague backed the Philippines when it refuted China’s sweeping claims.

However, President Duterte has set aside this ruling in favour of warmer ties to Beijing. This is despite more than 80 per cent of Filipinos wishing to see the government take a firmer line.

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