Aquino: Philippines to defy China

Aquino: Philippines to defy China
Filipino environmental activists display placards during a rally outside China's consular office in Manila on May 11, 2015, against China's reclamation and construction activities on islands and reefs in the Spratly Group of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines. The group is accusing China of destroying the fragile ecosystem and livelihood of fishermen during their reclamation project.

Philippine military and commercial aircraft will keep flying over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea despite China's warnings to its planes, President Aquino said on Monday.

Aquino told reporters there was no declared air defence identification zone by China over what it claimed were parts of its territory in the South China Sea.

"We will still fly the routes that we fly based on international law….We will still exercise our rights over our exclusive economic zone [in the West Philippine Sea]," Aquino said.

"We know what's happening, and we have a calculated response to all these incidents that are happening," he said, adding that "the bottom line is we will defend our rights to the best of our abilities."

The President also pointed to the disparity in the military strength of China and the Philippines, saying China should not bully a smaller country because it would hurt its image as it tried to build goodwill with its trading partners.

China has been reclaiming land around atolls and reefs in the Spratly archipelago to build artificial islands and strengthen its claim to nearly all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.

Recent satellite images indicate that China has made rapid progress in filling in land around at least seven reefs and in building an airstrip suitable for military use and that it may be planning another.

Warning to aircraft

China has also been challenging Philippine and US aircraft flying over the disputed area, indicating it is moving toward declaring it an air defence identification zone.

On April 25, a Chinese naval vessel used powerful light on a Philippine Navy surveillance plane near Zamora Reef (Subi Reef) in the West Philippine Sea and radioed it to leave "Chinese territory."

The pilots ignored the Chinese ship's actions to avoid a confrontation, according to Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

On May 20, the Chinese Navy challenged a US Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane flying over Philippine-claimed Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef) with a CNN news team on board.

"This is the Chinese Navy . . . This is the Chinese Navy . . . Please go away . . . to avoid misunderstanding," the Chinese radioed the pilots.

There were eight such warnings during the P-8's flight over Kagitingan, one of the sites of China's land reclamation in the Spratlys, CNN reported.

In each case, the American pilots replied that they were flying through "international airspace."

The US Navy released a video of the tense exchange to underscore the United States' determination to focus global attention on China's massive land reclamation in the South China Sea.

The United States vowed to keep up air and sea patrols in international waters in the South China Sea despite China's warnings.

Next US step

The Pentagon also said US surveillance aircraft and naval ships had yet to test China's territorial claims around the artificial islands it was building in the Spratlys, but that could be "the next step."

US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel told reporters in Washington that the United States would go further to preserve the ability of all countries to move in international waters and airspace.

"Nobody in their right mind is going to try to stop the US Navy from operating-that would not be a good bet," Russel said.

A number of lawmakers have urged President Aquino to convene the National Security Council for discussion of the Philippines' options in the face of China's increasing assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea, waters in the South China Sea within the country's 370-km exclusive economic zone.

The President has refused, saying the Cabinet security cluster and the legal cluster are enough and can adequately deal with the situation in the West Philippine Sea.

PH strategy

In his talk with reporters on Monday, Aquino also cited his consultations with the heads of other government agencies on the formulation of the Philippines' strategy in the West Philippine Sea dispute.

"All of these decisions, although I am supposed to be the main architect [of] foreign policy, we have tried to get as many voices from the different branches of government to have different perspectives and come up with the best solution to this problem," Aquino said.

When asked about what coordination the Philippines is having with its military ally, the United States, to deal with the West Philippine Sea problem, Aquino said the two countries were helping each other but that he could not disclose details.

"Even in basketball, you don't reveal all your moves to the other coach," Aquino said.

UN arbitration

The Philippines has taken the dispute to the United Nations arbitral tribunal, and is waiting for a ruling that will clarify the entitlements of the claimants to territory in the South China Sea.

Besides China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway crisscrossed by sea-lanes through which $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.

All claimants but Brunei have military facilities on the Spratly islands they control.

The islands, reefs and atolls in the Spratlys are also believed to be sitting atop vast oil and gas reserves.

China insists it is entitled to keep watch over airspace and seas surrounding the artificial islands it is building in the Spratlys, saying it has "undisputed sovereignty" over the South China Sea.

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