KEY POINTS

  • The plane had journalists onboard who shared the video of the warning to the public 
  • Manila says the patrols are aimed at protecting its fishermen and sovereign rights
  • Chinese media says military patrols might inflame tensions and risk accidents

The Chinese military Tuesday tried to shoo away a Philippine military plane with journalists on board, which flew low over contested reefs in the South China Sea where an intruding flotilla of Chinese ships manned by militias has been moored for several days now.

The flotilla, spotted last week around the Whitsun Reef, a shallow coral region about 300 kms west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan, has raised tensions in the South China Sea. China has ignored Philippines' demands to recall the flotilla, saying it owns the offshore territory. 

The Philippines says the vessels in the flotilla have spread to a wider area in the South China Sea. Manila has sent out naval ships on “sovereignty patrols” to the disputed area. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had said the patrols were aimed at "protecting the nation’s fishermen and sovereign rights."

The patrol plane was flying over the Calderon Reef, Mischief Reef, and Johnson Reef when the Chinese sounded a radio warning to “stay away” and “leave immediately,” reported South China Morning Post.  However, the Philippines pilots insisted on continuing their maritime patrol as planned. Marine Major General Edgard Arevalo, the spokesman for the Philippines’ armed forces, insisted the military overflights would continue. He said the warnings came from Chinese military outposts on occupied artificial reefs. 

"We regularly conduct air and naval patrols aside from other relevant measures to ensure maritime situational awareness. And if I may, those challenges have been customary”. Our reply is likewise customary: ‘this is a Philippine government aircraft conducting a routine maritime patrol over the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). We are proceeding according to our planned route’,” he said.

The warnings were confirmed by the journalists on board the plane.  

Arevalo said the news team was accommodated after they “requested to join the scheduled air sovereignty patrol for them to have their own, first hand footage [and sound recordings] of the situation.” 

The Philippine aircraft that conducted Tuesday’s patrol was “challenged at least five times” as it flew over the reefs, said Chiara Zambrano, a reporter who was on board the plane. 

Zambrano shared footage in which a person speaking Mandarin can be heard uttering “Chigua Jiao” (China's name for Johnson South Reef) before sounding a warning: "You are already close to China’s islands and reefs. To avoid misjudgment, please stay away immediately.”

The footage also shows the artificial islands built by China, with runways clearly visible. Previous reports have said China has deployed missiles and airplanes on the islands. 

Meanwhile, Chinese state-run Global Times has called the Philippine patrols "inappropriate, and might inflame tensions and risk accidents."

Quoting unnamed experts, the report said the fighter aircraft used by the Philippines are FA-50 and it remains a threat to the Chinese fishing vessels as "low altitude flybys can disrupt fishing and intimidate boat crews."

"And ultra-low-level flight maneuvers could also be challenging for the pilots as they risk crashing," the report quoted an "expert."

Over two hundred ships were first spotted on March 7 at Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometres (175 nautical miles) west of Palawan Island in the South China Sea Over two hundred ships were first spotted on March 7 at Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometres (175 nautical miles) west of Palawan Island in the South China Sea Photo: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies / Handout