A US SURVEILLANCE plane was warned eight times by the Chinese Navy against flying over the contested West Philippine Sea on Wednesday, CNN Philippines said in an exclusive report.
A CNN team led by senior correspondent Jim Sciutto was on board the P8-A Poseidon, Washington’s most advanced surveillance aircraft, when it took off from Clark Air Base in Pampanga.
A Chinese radio operator warned the aircraft, which flew at its lowest point of 15,000 feet: “Foreign military aircraft, this is the Chinese Navy. You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately…You go!
“This is the Chinese Navy... This is the Chinese Navy... Please go away immediately.”
“We were just challenged 30 minutes ago and the challenge came from the Chinese navy, and I’m highly confident it came from ashore, this facility here [Fiery Cross Reef or Kagitingan Reef],” Capt. Mike Parker told CNN.
In Manila on Thursday, international legal experts said the Philippines was losing ground inch by inch from China’s continuing expansion on the disputed West Philippine Sea, and which was likely to endanger the Philippines’ fisheries sector and food security for the entire region and result in up to P16.7 billion in lost economic benefits.
“Construction at the Kennan, Gaven Chigua Reefs and Ayungin Shoal, which is near the Philippine’s Pag-asa Island, are in full swing with permanent structures continuing to be constructed,” Magdalo party-list Rep. Francisco Ashley Acedillo said during a forum at the Manila Polo club sponsored by The Standard.
He said unless the Philippine government did something quick, the country would face an impending threat that will endanger national security because the continuing activities by the Chinese were right in the backyard of the Philippines, which is less than 50 kilometers away from its Ayungin Shoal and roughly 400 kilometers away from Palawan.
He recalled that Filipino fishermen were driven away by the Chinese Coast guard when the fishermen tried to fish near the Chinese-occupied reefs in Ayungin.
Harry Roque, director of the UP Law Center’s Institute of International Legal Studies, described as “worrisome” China’s construction of artificial islands in Johnson South Reef, its expansion of its artificial island in Fiery Cross reef, and its deployment of naval forces to ward off any opposition.
Because of China’s continuing actions in the disputed South China Sea, the Philippines has brought China before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for arbitration.
“These constructions are happening in the face of China’s snub of the arbitral proceedings that precisely impugn China’s legal rights to do so,” Roque said.
“Clearly, China’s conduct is not only illegal but is also contemptuous of the proceedings.”
CNN said Fiery Cross Reef had military barracks and a runway aside from the early-warning station based on the footage taken by the P8.
“There’s obviously a lot of surface traffic down there: Chinese warships, Chinese coast guard ships. They have air search radars, so there’s a pretty good bet they’re tracking us,” Lt. Commander Matt Newman told CNN from the cockpit.
Defense spokesman Peter Galvez said the incident only showed that Beijing had “imposed their self-serving rules even in clearly established international airspace.”
“The incident shows the extent to which China is willing to disregard international laws and freedom of flight and navigation,” Galvez said.
“These actions further increase the risk of irreparable miscalculations and untoward incidents.”
The Chinese navy issued warnings eight times as a US surveillance plane on Wednesday swooped over islands that Beijing is using to extend its zone of influence.
The series of man-made islands and the massive Chinese military build-up on them have alarmed the Pentagon, which is carrying out the surveillance flights in order to make clear the US does not recognize China’s territorial claims. The militarized islands have also alarmed America’s regional allies.
Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CNN’s Erin Burnett Wednesday night that the confrontation indicated there was “absolutely” a risk of the US and China going to war sometime in the future.
A CNN team was given exclusive access to join in the surveillance flights over the contested waters, which the Pentagon allowed for the first time in order to raise awareness on the challenge posed by the islands and the growing US response.
CNN was aboard the P8-A Poseidon, America’s most advanced surveillance and submarine-hunting aircraft, and quickly learned that the Chinese were themselves displeased by the US pushback.
“This is the Chinese navy... This is the Chinese navy ... Please go away ... to avoid misunderstanding,” a voice in English crackled through the radio of the aircraft in which CNN was present.
It was the first time the Pentagon had declassified a video of China’s building activity and an audio of Chinese challenges to a US aircraft.
The aircraft flew at 15,000 feet in the air at its lowest point, but the US is considering flying such surveillance missions even closer over the islands, as well as sailing US warships within miles of them as part of the new, more robust US military posture in the area.
Soon after the Chinese communication was heard, its source appeared on the horizon seemingly out of nowhere: an island made by China some 600 miles from its coastline.
The South China Sea is the subject of many rival -often messy- territorial claims over an area that includes fertile fishing grounds and potentially rich reserves of undersea natural resources. China is increasingly showing that even far from its mainland, it sees itself as having jurisdiction over the body of water.
Wednesday’s mission was specifically aimed at monitoring Chinese activities on three islands that months ago were reefs barely peaking above the waves. Now they are massive construction projects that the US fears will soon be fully functioning military installations.
China’s alarming creation of entirely new territory in the South China Sea is one part of a broader military push that some fear is intended to challenge US dominance in the region. Beijing is sailing its first aircraft carrier; equipping its nuclear missiles with multiple warheads; developing missiles to destroy US warships; and now, building military bases far from its shores.
That was exactly what Morell warned might be coming if China continued down its current path. He warned CNN that “there’s a real risk, when you have this kind of confrontation, for something bad happening.”
He added that China’s aggressive growth hinted at a broader trend as the Asian economic superpower continued to expand its influence and strength -one that Morell said could “absolutely” lead to war between the US and China. “China is a rising power. We’re a status quo power. We’re the big dog on the block ... They want more influence,” Morell said.
“Are we going to move a little bit? Are they going to push? How is that dance going to work out? This is a significant issue for the next President of the United States.” With Vito Barcelo
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