‘China should be challenged on flights to island’

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines denounced yesterday Chinese test flights to an artificial island in the disputed South China Sea, warning that if China is not challenged it will likely impose an “unacceptable” air defense zone over the area.

China landed two test flights on an island it has built in the South China Sea on Wednesday, four days after its first landing on the 3,000-meter runway on a reef in the Spratly Islands.

“We’re very concerned about the fact that China had already flown their flights to Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef and we’re also concerned that there are plans to do more,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told a news conference.

“We believe that the other concern we have is that if this is to happen and if this is not challenged, we’ll have a situation where China will take the position that an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) could be imposed, whether this is done in terms of a de facto basis or whether it is official. Of course this would be deemed as unacceptable to us,” he said.

China declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea in 2013, where it has overlapping claims with Japan. The United States criticized it as dangerous and provocative.

Under the ADIZ, all aircraft are supposed to report flight plans to Chinese authorities, maintain radio contact and reply promptly to identification inquiries. US, Japanese and South Korean military aircraft have breached the zone without informing China.

Del Rosario said the Philippines would protest to China about its flights.

“These are provocative actions which we need to think about and we need to take positions on,” he said.

China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes every year, and has been increasingly assertive in staking its claim.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines have rival claims to parts of the sea, which is believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.

The runway at the Kagitingan Reef is one of three China has been building for more than a year by dredging sand up onto reefs and atolls.

The US has criticized China’s construction of the islands and worries that it plans to use them for military purposes. China says it has no hostile intent.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said freedom of navigation and overflights were non-negotiable.

“They are the red line for us,” Hammond told the same news conference with Del Rosario in his visit in the Philippines as part of a three-country tour of Asia that included China.

“We, as an international maritime and trading nation, enjoy freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea. We expect to continue to exercise those rights,” Hammond said.

Hammond, whose Manila visit followed a trip to China, did not elaborate on what action would be taken if the “red flag” was raised, other than to say Britain would continue to assert its right to sail in the area.

“We’ve been very clear throughout that we don’t take any position on the competing claims but we do believe that disputes of this nature should be resolved in accordance with established principles of international law and Britain will recognize the decision of the tribunal,” Hammond said, referring to the case filed by the Philippines before the UN Arbitral Tribunal questioning China’s assertion over some of the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Diplomatic protest

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Monday the Philippines intends to file a diplomatic protest against China over the test flight over Kagitingan Reef.

Manila also accused Beijing of raising tensions anew in the South China Sea.

Vietnam also protested China’s action, saying it is a serious infringement of the sovereignty of Vietnam on the Spratly Islands and asked China not to repeat the flight.

Japan also expressed concern over China’s test flight on a newly built airfield on reclaimed land. 

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said such acts “don’t contribute to the peaceful settlement of the dispute” and “should be avoided.”

China rejected Vietnam’s protest over the flight test on a new airstrip on the man-made island in the South China Sea, saying it is part of China’s territory.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the flight is to test whether the airfield facilities in the artificial island can meet civil aviation standards.

The Philippines has asked a United Nations-backed tribunal to void China’s claim over almost the entire South China Sea. It expects a decision this year.

China did not participate in the arbitration hearings at The Hague as it maintained that sea disputes should be resolved bilaterally.

“Win or lose, we will abide by the rule of law and we expect China to do the same,” Del Rosario said.

Hammond, who was in Beijing for a two-day official visit before he traveled to Manila, emphasized that freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea are “non-negotiable” for the UK.

“I just came from Beijing and we had this discussion in Beijing. I think you’re probably right that China has rejected this process. It doesn’t recognize the process,” Hammond said. 

Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin are scheduled to meet their counterparts in the US to discuss the prevailing regional concerns this weekend.

Gazmin said they would be meeting with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We will talk about our bilateral relations, to enhance our bilateral relations and probably one of the subject matters would be the South China Sea,” Gazmin said.

High on the agenda at the 2+2 meeting is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the return of US troops on increased rotation basis and the storage of logistics in the country. – Jaime Laude


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