Manila Protests Beijing’s Use of Warning Flares above Disputed Waters

J.C. Gotinga and Aie Balagtas See
Manila Protests Beijing’s Use of Warning Flares above Disputed Waters A dragon dance welcomes the Wuhu, a Chinese navy guided-missile frigate, as it docks at Manila’s South Harbor for a port call, July 12, 2021.

The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest with China for its reported use of flares to warn off Filipino surveillance planes as they flew over contested portions of the South China Sea in June, Manila’s national security advisor said Friday.

Last week, a Philippine military unit posted in the Spratly Islands said that warning flares were fired from Chinese outposts located on islets in the Union Banks to ward off Philippine Air Force planes, which were patrolling the skies above the area in mid- to late June.

“True to what we have agreed upon, this was immediately put to a diplomatic protest – there was a diplomatic protest,” National Security Advisor Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told a virtual news briefing, in responding to questions about China’s use of flares in the disputed waters.

“We continuously protest against what we find there to be in violation of our sovereignty and sovereign rights,” Esperon said.

Meanwhile, according to an internal report by the Western Command, China fired five warning shots between June 16 and June 22 as Philippine military planes overflew the maritime region.

The report also contained images showing that China is continuing to expand its facilities in islands that Beijing occupies in the sea, including on Calderon Reef (also known as Cuarteron).

BenarNews saw parts of the report.

National Security Adviser Esperon leads a task force that oversees what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea – its exclusive economic zone and other claimed territories within the South China Sea.

“We see to it that as long as we can, and are within the international rules ... if we see our sovereignty and sovereign rights violated, then we indeed launch diplomatic protests… or some actions are taken to protect our national interest in the area,” Esperon said.

“China uses pyrotechnic signals or flare warnings to ward off our ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) team,” Lt. Col. Bill Pasia, of the Western Command, told an online forum Aug. 20, according to a report in the Philippine Inquirer.

As of late Friday, it remained unclear why the military had not earlier publicized the information about the incidents involving the flares and the aircraft.

Officials at the Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond on Friday to a BenarNews request for comment. 

Philippine patrols

The alleged firing of flares came around the time when Manila stepped up patrols in the waters of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) amid reports that Chinese boats and ships were clustered in Philippine-claimed waters of the South China Sea.

Earlier this year, Manila’s foreign affairs department had said it would file “daily diplomatic protests” with Beijing over the ongoing presence of Chinese ships in the EEZ.

This occurred at the height of a diplomatic spat between the two governments that began in March, when the Philippine military first flagged the presence of more than 200 Chinese fishing boats which, it alleged, were manned by militias.

Esperon noted that the increase in government patrols was not geared at monitoring Chinese activities alone.

“Whether you are Chinese or any other nationality, we continuously monitor marine scientific vessels that go into our maritime domain. Without the [permission] of the Philippines, they’re immediately protested by the [foreign affairs department],” Esperon said.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone as well.

In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected as invalid China’s sweeping claims over the sea region, as the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in a lawsuit brought by Manila against Beijing.

China, however, has ignored the ruling and continues with its military expansion in the resource-rich South China Sea. In January, Beijing even passed a law that allows its coast guard to fire at ships intruding in Chinese-claimed waters.

This week, during a visit to Singapore and Vietnam, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris criticized Beijing’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea.

“We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” Harris said while in Hanoi, referring to the international treaty that sets nations’ rights and responsibilities in the world’s oceans.


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