Friday, May 8, 2015

• Manila: China claiming airspace above isles it is building - By Raul Dancel

Manila: China claiming airspace above isles it is building
By Raul Dancel, Philippines Correspondent In Manila -

Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is pictured in this April 2, 2015, handout satellite image obtained by Reuters on April 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS -

Philippine military says its planes were told by radio to leave disputed sea area

CHINA is already claiming airspace above the artificial islands it is building in the South China Sea, the Philippine military said.

At a Senate hearing yesterday, Vice-Admiral Alexander Lopez, head of the military's Western Command, said Philippine air force and navy planes have been told by radio at least six times to leave a China-held "military security area".

These incidents occurred in the past three months, a senior air force official told Reuters.

China could be testing the waters to see if it can enforce an air exclusion zone above the Spratly Islands chain in the South China Sea, the official said.

China replied that it has no intention to do so. In a news briefing yesterday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chun-ying said that while China had the sovereign right to declare an air exclusion zone to assure airspace safety, "the current situation in the South China Sea is peaceful and stable".

Taking a swipe at the Philippines, she said: "For another party to stir up the issue, that China might want to set up an air exclusion zone over the South China Sea, evidently there are ulterior motives."

Vice-Admiral Lopez was not asked for details during the Senate hearing, but one incident was reported two weeks ago, when a Chinese frigate stationed near a reclaimed reef challenged a Philippine aircraft on a routine reconnaissance patrol. The incident occurred on April 19.

The warship flashed lights and radioed the plane to leave the area, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Cabunoc said on April 24.

China disputed this account.
China's Foreign Ministry said the Chinese ship did not flash lights at the plane, but it did radio the pilot because of "multiple intrusions into the area above waters near China's islands and reefs over recent days". The plane was reportedly flying 1,500m over Subi Reef, where China is said to be planning a 3km airstrip.

The latest satellite images showed that China has already reclaimed enough land to build at least two airstrips, harbours and buildings the size of large shopping malls in all seven reefs it occupies in the island chain.

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have competing claims.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, the US' most senior military commander for Asia, has warned that China could install long-range detection radars, base warships and warplanes on its islands, potentially giving it the ability to enforce an air defence identification zone.

At yesterday's Senate hearing, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia said disputes in the South China Sea "has in fact overtaken all security issues in our hierarchy of national security concerns".

General Gregorio Catapang, the Philippine military chief, told senators that Congress should increase spending to modernise the military.

"We don't have the luxury of time. The threats are already there," he said.

Separately, Cambodia threw its support yesterday behind China's position on settling South China Sea disputes, arguing that territorial conflicts should be tackled between claimants and not involve Asean.- 

A Philippine Navy personnel loads bullets for a .50 calibre machine gun during the bilateral maritime exercise between the Philippine Navy and U.S. Navy dubbed as Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing June 29, 2014.

China has warned Philippine air force and navy planes at least six times to leave areas around the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine militarycommander responsible for the region told a Senate hearing on Thursday.

While Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez gave no timeframe, a senior Philippine air force official told Reuters the warnings had come in the past three months.

China could be “testing the waters” to see if it can enforce an air exclusion zone above the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, said the air force official, who declined to be identified.

Recent satellite images show China has made rapid progress in reclaiming land around seven reefs it occupies in the Spratlys, including building what appears to be an airstrip on one of the artificial islands.

That has alarmed some countries in Southeast Asia and drawn criticism from Washington.

“As we were conducting routine maritime air patrols and flying in international airspace, our air force aircraft were challenged over the radio,” Lopez, commander of the Philippine Western Command, told senators, adding the planes ignored the warnings.

“The Chinese said our planes were in their military security area.”

China deploys coastguard and naval vessels in the Spratlys, but rarely planes because of the distance from mainland China.

Last month, a Chinese warship challenged a Philippine maritime patrol plane near Subi Reef, asking the low-flying aircraft to leave China’s territory, said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc.

The U.S. military commander for Asia, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said last month that China could eventually deploy radar and missile systems on its outposts that could be used to enforce an exclusion zone should it move to declare one.

Beijing claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, through which $US5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.

China has denied accusations its actions are provocative. It recently accused the Philippines, Vietnam and others of carrying out illegal building work in the South China Sea.

Lopez said China had expanded the seven reefs it occupies from a few thousand square meters to up to 11 hectares (27 acres) in artificial islands, including two areas close to the Philippine-held Thitu island, also known as Pagasa, and Second Thomas Shoal.

The United States and other countries would be welcome to use civilian facilities China is building in the Spratlys for search and rescue and weather forecasting “when conditions are right”, China’s navy chief told a senior U.S. officer recently.

China drew condemnation from Japan and the United States when it imposed an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), in which aircraft are supposed to identify themselves to Chinese authorities, above the East China Sea in late 2013.

Source: Business Insider – China is ordering Philippine military planes to get away from disputed areas of the South China Sea

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