MANILA/CAVITE, PHILIPPINES - The Philippine defense chief said Monday that the military will continue its aerial patrols of a Chinese-held shoal near the South China Sea despite protests from Beijing over the flights, especially using Japanese-donated aircraft.
When asked if the Philippine military will stop the surveillance of Scarborough Shoal following the protests from Beijing, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the flights will continue because the area is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, giving the country internationally recognized sovereign rights.
A Philippine official said China raised concerns over the patrols, including one that used a Japanese-donated TC-90 plane, when Chinese and Philippine officials met to discuss their territorial disputes in Manila last month.
Japan turned over the last three of five TC-90 aircraft to the Philippines on Monday.
Lorenzana, in a speech at a naval base south of the capital Manila, said the three Japanese-donated, second-hand TC-90 planes will definitely boost the navy’s capability to gather intelligence in the disputed South China Sea.
“We must admit that much still has to be done to boost our military capability equipment in order to meet a number of persistent maritime security challenges,” Lorenzana said, identifying territorial disputes with China, and other countries, over resource-rich areas in the South China Sea.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the strategic waterway.
Tensions between the Philippines and China over the disputed sea have eased since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in July 2016 and improved relations with Beijing via Chinese trade and investments.
Lorenzana said the Philippines was also concerned with piracy and the movement of armed insurgents in the Sulu Sea and other transnational crimes, including smuggling of illegal drugs and poaching into rich fishing grounds in territorial waters.
Japan planned to lease five surveillance planes but decided last year to transfer without cost the aircraft after changes were made in Tokyo’s Self-Defense Forces Law allowing donation of excess defense and military equipment to partner countries.
Japan’s vice minister for defense, Tatsuo Fukuda, said Tokyo was willing to help its allies improve its capabilities help secure the safety of international sea lanes and benefit not only the Philippines but the entire region.
During the handover ceremony, Lorenzana and Fukuda watched the planes land at a naval base guarding the mouth of Manila Bay, hundreds of kilometers southeast of the disputed Scarborough Shoal now patrolled by Chinese coast guard ships.
The navy said the surveillance planes have a range of 300 km (186 miles), twice the capability of its existing aircraft and could patrol into China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratly chain, which had been converted into military bases.
The navy said it has a budget of nearly 6 billion pesos ($114.65 million) to acquire two brand new long-range maritime patrol aircraft to enhance its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.