MANILA, Philippines — China’s firing of warning flares against Philippine military aircraft patrolling the West Philippine Sea were not a direct threat, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has said, appearing to downplay Beijing’s actions in the disputed waters.
“Is it a cause for concern? No,” the defense chief said in a statement to reporters on Wednesday.
Maj. Gen. Reuben Basiao, deputy chief of staff for intelligence of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), told lawmakers during a security briefing at the House of Representatives on Tuesday that China fired warning flares six times this year from its artificial islands.
All the reported incidents happened in February. This was the first time it was revealed to the public, a few months after it took place. A Philippine Air Force (PAF) pilot who had flown air patrols in the West Philippine Sea told INQUIRER.net that this has been happening even before and it was meant to challenge them and prevent them from coming closer to the man-made islands.
Basiao said that China has been using its assets to block Philippine resupply and patrol missions in the West Philippine Sea. It has also made “significant improvements” in its occupied features in the Spratly Islands, particularly in Chigua, Mabini, and Panganiban reefs, he added.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea based on its mythical nine-dash line, which had already been rejected by an international court in 2016. Its claims included territories also being claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. It has turned reefs and islands into military outposts, deployed warships and maritime militia to reinforce its territorial claims in the contested waterway.
‘Just a warning’
Lorenzana confirmed that the flares were fired from three Chinese-held artificial islands within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone while the PAF planes were passing by these islands.
“Why were the Chinese firing their flares? I don’t know. Maybe they were having some celebrations,” he said.
“But my suspicion is that they are letting our aircraft know where they (the Chinese) are lest our aircraft stray over them. It is just a warning to communicate where they are, nothing more. They were never a direct threat to our aircraft,” he added.
The defense chief said Air Force planes conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions were 5 nautical miles away from the islands and were flying at 5,000 feet.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Wednesday night gave little weight to the reported incidents after Lorenzana made his statement.
“Thank God we waited for military intelligence to get the right picture before running around like headless chickens,” he wrote on Twitter.
But INQUIRER.net learned from two government sources that protests had already been filed against China regarding the firing of flares early this year, way before the incidents were disclosed to the public this week. /kga
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