As a Philippine coast guard aircraft flew over the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea, a message came in over the radio telling it to immediately leave “Chinese territory”.
Such warnings, from a Chinese coast guard ship, have become an almost daily ritual around one of the world’s most contested archipelagos.
“Calling China coast guard vessel. You are transiting inside Philippine territorial sea,” the Philippine pilot radios back. “Request identify yourself and state your intention to prevent misunderstanding,” he said.
While China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the strategic Spratly islands.
For years, China has permanently deployed hundreds of coast guard and fishing vessels in disputed areas like the Spratlys. It has dredged sand to build islands on reefs, and equipped them with missiles and runways.
The Philippines, meanwhile, occupies nine features there. It has accused China of aggression and “swarming” by fishing vessels that it says are militia, including near the tiny Thitu island occupied by Manila since the 1970s.
A Reuters journalist joined the Philippine flight on Thursday and observed some of those Chinese boats dotted in the waters around Thitu, an island of 400 people. The Philippines last week accused the vessels, including a navy ship, of “slowly loitering”.
China says activities ‘reasonable’
Beijing said on Friday it has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, known in China as the Nansha Islands, and its adjacent waters.
“Therefore, it is reasonable and legal for Chinese ships to carry out normal activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing.
The Philippine fly-by came amid repeated complaints by the government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr against China’s actions.
Last month, it accused China of using a laser that “temporarily blinded” crew members of a Philippine coast guard vessel.
Under Marcos, The Philippines has stepped up its rhetoric to challenge China. It is even seeking closer ties with former colonial power and defence ally the United States, including plans to hold joint sea patrols.
Rhetoric over radios
The plane flew over another hot spot for China-Philippines tensions – the Second Thomas Shoal – where the green military grade laser was used last month.
Manila said the targeted coast guard crew was supporting a military resupply mission at the shoal, which lies in the Spratly Islands and inside the Philippines 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines has long maintained a small military contingent at the shoal. It stays aboard a rusty former US navy ship that country ran aground on a reef there to preserve Manila’s territorial claim.
China’s coast guard challenged the plane again as it flew over the shoal.
“This is the Philippine Coast Guard,” the pilot responded.
“We are conducting a routine maritime patrol within our national airspace, and monitoring the safety of our fishermen,” it said.
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena