The Philippine military says it has deployed a Japanese patrol plane to a disputed Chinese-controlled shoal in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea, as it is known in the archipelago, without encountering any Chinese resistance.
The Northern Luzon Command said the Beechcraft King Air C90 flew low above the rich fishing grounds of Scarborough Shoal, sometimes called Panatag by Filipinos, on its first mission for the navy. It reported nine Chinese vessels, including four Chinese coastguard boats and four Philippine fishing ships.
Chinese forces in the region often warn foreign vessels or aircraft by radio that they have entered Chinese-controlled territory and should leave.
The atoll was used as a target range for live firing exercises by the US and Philippine militaries in 1970s to 1980s.
This month, a US guided missile destroyer travelled within 20km of Scarborough Shoal, claiming it was asserting freedom of navigation. Beijing said it would take “necessary measures” to protect its “sovereignty”.
Observers have said the abandonment of US bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s may have given China the opportunity to occupy its famous nine-dash line maritime claim around 80 per cent of the South China Sea. The Chinese military initially established a presence in Panganiban or Mischief Reef near Palawan in 1995.
Chinese forces occupied Scarborough in 2012 after a standoff with Philippine ships. The uninhabited reef is about 200km of the largest Philippine island, Luzon, and about 600km southeast of China.
The Philippine military said it would use “all available assets and resources to protect our national territory … and assert our sovereign rights over our maritime domain”.
Japan donated five refurbished Beechcraft aircraft although only two have arrived so far.
A Japanese destroyer with a patrol helicopter is due to arrive in Manila this week for a three-day visit. A Japanese submarine destroyer also visited Manila in November.
Tokyo, which has a parallel dispute with Beijing over the East China Sea and the Philippines, signed a pact with Manila in March 2016 that allowed Japan to transfer military hardware and technology to the Philippines.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, says he wants to begin a joint exploration venture with Beijing in the “West Philippine Sea”, and the Chinese hailed the initiative as “full of political wisdom”.
The Malampaya gas field, which supplies around a third of Luzon’s energy demands, is forecast to be depleted within a decade.
USS Carl Vinson transits the South China Sea. Picture credit: Wikimedia