As a Philippine Coast Guard plane carrying journalists flew over the Spratly Islands in the hotly contested South China Sea, a Chinese voice gave a stern command over the radio: “Depart immediately.”
The order came from a radio operator on a Chinese Coast Guard ship 3,500 feet (1,066 meters) below — one of dozens of ships prowling through the water.
AFP was one of several media outlets Thursday given the rare opportunity to fly over some of the dozens of small islands and reefs where the Philippines, China and several other countries have competing claims.
Beijing claims sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys, ignoring an international ruling that its claims have no legal basis.
Over the past decade, it has ripped up thousands of acres of reef in the archipelago to create militarized islands with airstrips, harbors and radar systems.
To assert his claims, hundreds of China Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels patrol the waters, swarming reefs, harassing and attacking fishermen and other boats.
They also try to drive non-Chinese aircraft out of the airspace above their heads.
“You entered (the water around) a Chinese reef and posed a threat to safety. To avoid any misunderstanding, you must leave immediately,” the Chinese radio operator said in one of seven messages in Chinese and English when the coast guard plane over a Philippine occupied island and shoal.
The Philippine pilot replied that they were flying within Philippine territory.
– ‘Bullying behavior’ –
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 at Sabina Shoal, which is claimed by Manila.
Fifteen boats belonging to Chinese maritime militia were seen near Thitu, the largest Philippine-occupied island which is about 430 kilometers (267 mi) from the large Philippine island of Palawan.
A Chinese naval vessel was 15 kilometers from the island, while a Coast Guard vessel was half that distance, according to Philippine Coast Guard estimates.
At Second Thomas Shoal, where Philippine Marines are stationed in an abandoned naval vessel grounded to assert Manila’s territorial claim in the waters, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel was about 7 miles away, Philippine authorities said.
Last month, a Chinese Coast Guard boat was nearly 12 miles from the shoal when it reportedly used a military-grade laser light against a Philippine patrol boat.
That was the last major maritime incident between the Philippines and China.
It sparked another diplomatic spat and prompted Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to take the unusual step of confronting the Chinese ambassador to Manila.
Marcos has insisted he will not allow China to trample on the Philippines’ maritime rights – unlike his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte who was reluctant to criticize Beijing.
The Philippines’ new strategy was to denounce China’s “harassing behavior and aggressive actions,” Commodore Jay Tarriela, the spokesman for the Philippine Coast Guard for the West Philippine Sea, told a forum in the capital Manila on Wednesday.
Manila refers to the waters immediately west of it as the West Philippine Sea.
The Coast Guard regularly publishes information, including photos and videos, about Chinese ships in the waters around Philippine-occupied territories.
This helps inform Filipinos and allows other countries to criticize China for its activities, Tarriela said.
And it forces Beijing to “come out and explain or lie completely”.