As a Philippine Coast Guard plane carrying journalists flew over the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in the South China Sea, a Chinese voice issued a command over the radio: “Leave immediately.”
The order came from a radio operator on a Chinese Coast Guard vessel 1,066m below — one of dozens of ships seen in the area.
Agence France-Presse was one of several media firms given an opportunity on Thursday to fly over some of the dozens of tiny islands and reefs where Taiwan, the Philippines, China and other nations have claims.
To assert its claims, hundreds of Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels patrol the waters, swarming reefs, and harassing and attacking fishing and other boats.
They also try expel planes that are not Chinese from the airspace overhead.
“You have entered [waters around] a Chinese reef and constituted a security threat,” the Chinese radio operator said, in one of seven messages issued in Chinese and English as the plane flew over a Philippine-occupied island and shoal. “To avoid misunderstanding, leave immediately.”
The pilot responded that they were flying within Philippine territory.
During the four-hour flight in the Cessna Caravan, Philippine Coast Guard personnel identified nearly 20 Chinese vessels, including suspected maritime militia boats, in waters around some of the nine islands and reefs occupied by the Philippines.
Seventeen Chinese maritime militia boats were also spotted by the Philippine Coast Guard near Sabina Shoal (Sianbin Shoal, 仙濱暗吵), which is claimed by Manila.
Fifteen Chinese maritime militia boats were seen in the vicinity of Thitu Island (Jhongye Island, 中業島) — the largest Philippine-occupied island — which lies about 430km from the major Philippine island of Palawan.
A Chinese navy ship was 15km from Thitu, while a Chinese Coast Guard vessel was half that distance away, according to estimates provided by the Philippine Coast Guard.
At Second Thomas Shoal (Renai Shoal, 仁愛暗沙), where Philippine marines are stationed in a derelict navy ship grounded to assert Manila’s territorial claim in the waters, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel was about 11km away, the Philippine authorities said.
Last month, a Chinese Coast Guard boat was nearly 20km from Second Thomas Shoal when it allegedly used a military-grade laser light against a Philippine patrol boat.
That was the latest major maritime incident between the Philippines and China. It sparked a fresh diplomatic row and prompted Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr to confront the Chinese ambassador to Manila.
Marcos has said that he would not let China trample on the Philippines’ maritime rights.
Manila’s new strategy was to call out China’s “bullying behavior and aggressive actions,” Commodore Jay Tarriela, the Philippine Coast Guard spokesman for the West Philippine Sea, told a forum in the capital, Manila, on Wednesday.
Manila refers to waters immediately to its west as the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippine Coast Guard is regularly publishing information, including photographs and videos, about Chinese vessels in the waters around Philippine-occupied features.
This helps inform the public and enables other countries to criticize China over its activities, Tarriela said.
And it forces Beijing “to come out in the open to explain or to completely lie,” he said.
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