SPRATLY ISLANDS, Philippines: Over the radio, a Chinese voice issued a stern command as a Philippine Coast Guard plane carrying journalists flew over the Spratly Islands in the hotly contested South China Sea.
One of the dozens of ships spotted patrolling the waters was manned by a radio operator from the Chinese coast guard, and the order came from 3,500 feet (1,066 meters) below.
On Thursday, the Philippines, China, and several other countries granted a small group of media outlets, including AFP, the rare opportunity to fly over some of the dozens of tiny islands and reefs over which they have competing claims.
In spite of a ruling from the international community that the legitimacy of Beijing’s claims to the Spratlys and the rest of the South China Sea are without foundation, Beijing continues to assert control over the area.
Over the past ten years, it has destroyed thousands of acres of reef in the archipelago to build military bases complete with runways, ports, and radar systems.
Hundreds of Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels swarm reefs, harass and attack fishing and other boats, and patrol the waters to assert China’s claims.
They also make an effort to ban planes that aren’t Chinese from flying above China.
You have breached Chinese territorial waters and become a potential security risk by swimming near a reef. While flying over Philippine-occupied islands and a shoal, the coast guard plane received seven messages, including one in Chinese and English from the radio operator.
According to the Filipino pilot, they were safely over Philippine territory at the time.
Over the course of the four-hour Cessna Caravan flight, members of the Philippine Coast Guard spotted nearly 20 Chinese vessels, including suspected maritime militia boats, in the waters near some of the nine islands and reefs occupied by the Philippines.
The Philippine coast guard also spotted seventeen Chinese maritime militia boats near Sabina Shoal, which is claimed by Manila.
Thitu, the largest Philippine-occupied island, is located about 430 kilometers (267 miles) from Palawan, the main island of the Philippines, and fifteen Chinese maritime militia boats have been spotted in the area.
According to estimates provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, a Chinese navy ship was 15 kilometers from the island, while a coast guard vessel was half that distance away.
Philippine authorities reported seeing a Chinese coast guard vessel about 11 kilometers from Second Thomas Shoal, where Philippine marines were stationed in a grounded derelict navy ship to assert Manila’s territorial claim in the waters.
At a distance of nearly 20 kilometers from the shoal, a Chinese coast guard vessel is accused of using a laser light of military caliber to target a Philippine patrol boat earlier this month.
That was the most recent major incident involving Philippine and Chinese ships at sea.
It caused another diplomatic incident and led to the unprecedented move of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos confronting the Chinese ambassador in Manila.
Marcos, unlike his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who was hesitant to criticize Beijing, has vowed not to allow China to tramp on the Philippines’ maritime rights.
Commodore Jay Tarriela, spokesman for the Philippine Coast Guard in the West Philippine Sea, told a forum in Manila on Wednesday that the Philippines’ new strategy was to condemn China for its “bullying behavior and aggressive actions” in the region.
The waters to the west of Manila are known as the West Philippine Sea by locals.
The coast guard routinely releases updates, including visual evidence in the form of photos and videos, about Chinese naval vessels operating in the seas around Philippine territory.
According to Tarriela, this serves to educate Filipinos and allows other nations to criticize China for its actions.
Furthermore, it compels Beijing “to come out in the open to explain or to completely lie.”