Philippine officials say they received two intimidating radio warnings from people who identified themselves being from the Chinese navy when they flew a Cessna plane close to a Chinese-constructed island in the South China Sea.
Eric Apolonio said the incident happened Jan. 7 when he and other personnel of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines flew to a Philippine-occupied island for an engineering survey ahead of the planned installation of aviation safety equipment on the island.
The island, which the Philippines calls Pag-asa, is close to Subi Reef, which has been transformed by China into an island in the disputed Spratly chain.
As their Cessna approached Pag-asa to land, Apolonio said a message was received over an emergency radio channel warning: “Foreign military aircraft, this is the Chinese navy. You are threatening the security of our station.”
The Filipino pilots ignored the warning and continued with the trip since they were flying a civilian plane over what Apolonio said was Philippine territory. After finishing the survey on Pag-asa, they left in the plane and later received the same warning message, he said.
Asked if they felt threatened, Apolonio said they were apprehensive because “you’ll never know, we can be fired upon.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately reply when asked for comment.
Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon, the leader of the community on Pag-asa who flew with Apolonio’s team, said the radio warnings were an act of intimidation and illustrated the threat to freedom of flight in the region. He said other civilian and military planes have also been shooed away by the Chinese in the region.
British Ambassador to Manila Asif Ahmad said Monday his government would oppose any move that restricts freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed waters.
“If a British aircraft, civilian or military, was intercepted and not allowed to fly over a space which we regard as international, we will simply ignore it,” he told reporters.
In a related development,the Philippines is planning to install a $1-million satellite-based system to track commercial flights over the disputed South China Sea, after China landed its first test flights this month on a reef it built in the Spratly islands.
“In the absence of a radar in the area, the system will help track aircraft movements, enhancing safety and security,” said Rodante Joya, a deputy director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines.
Joya said the Philippines would install the 50-million-peso ($1.05-million) surveillance system on Pagasa to track about 200 commercial flights through the area each day.
The Philippines and Vietnam protested against China’s test flights on the Fiery Cross reef this month, saying Beijing might impose an air defense identification zone, restricting flights by commercial airlines over the South China Sea.