China irked by Philippine military’s visit to South China Sea island
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China irked by Philippine military’s visit to South China Sea island

THE CHINESE Foreign Ministry has “lodged representations” with its counterparts in Manila after a delegation of Philippine defence and military staff paid a visit to the disputed Spratly island of Thitu on Friday.

In a statement on the ministry’s website, spokesman Lu Kang said the visit runs counter to a consensus agreement between both the Chinese and Philippine leadership to deal with the South China Sea dispute in an amicable manner.

He said the Chinese side was “gravely concerned” and “dissatisfied” with the development, and therefore decided to raise alarm to its counterparts in Manila.

“We hope that the Philippine side could cherish the hard-won sound momentum of development the bilateral relations are experiencing, faithfully follow the consensus reached between the two leadership, maintain general peace and stability in the South China Sea, and promote the sound and steady development of China-Philippine relations,” he said.

On Friday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano, along with a delegation of other military officials, flew to Thitu, locally known as Pag-asa island, a Philippine-occupied territory that is part of the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

SEE ALSO: In shadow of China’s reef city, Philippines seeks upgrade for its island patriots

According to Inquirer, Lorenzana brushed off a challenge raised by the Chinese military while his C295 aircraft flew over disputed territory to reach Thitu, dismissing it as standard procedure.

The report said the Chinese told the plane pilots they were entering Chinese airspace, also warning them to leave to avoid “miscalculation”.

But Lorenzana said: “That’s just normal. Whenever an aircraft comes here to resupply, they always challenge, and we always tell them also that we are flying over Philippine territory.”

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An aerial view of China occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francis Malasig/Pool

However, the visit by Lorenzana came just shortly after the Philippine Coast Guard said it was investigating reports by Filipino fishermen that their vessel were fired upon by the Chinese Coast Guard when they sailed on the Spratly archipelago on March 27.

“(Princess Johann) was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese coast guards on board,” a PCG statement said, as quoted by Inquirer.

Lu Kang, in a routine press conference, was also asked for his comments on the matter Friday but the spokesman said he was not aware of the matter.

He insisted that China has not shifted from its position on the South China Sea matter and that it would continue to work with the Philippines to “properly deal with relevant maritime issues and create favourable conditions for the sound and steady development of bilateral relations.”

According to the AFP, however, if the incident is confirmed true, it would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two nations, whose ties have warmed since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to power mid-2016.

SEE ALSO: Philippines reinforcing, not militarising South China Sea islets, Duterte says

China claims most of parts of the South China Sea, including the Philippine-occupied Thitu, and has in recent years been building up facilities there to boost its military capabilities in the disputed maritime zone.

During his visit, Lorenzana said the Philippine government has set aside PHP1.6 billion (US$32 million) to develop Thitu and turn it into a tourist attraction and marine research center.

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Filipino Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana talks to reporters in Philippine occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands at disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. Source: Reuters/Erik De Castro

The seven other islands controlled by the Philippines in the Spratly’s would each get a PHP20 million booster to develop new structures, he added.

Inquirer said he also downplayed suggestions that the move would annoy China, saying it wouldn’t be the first time a diplomatic protest is lodged.

He also pointed out that the Chinese have developed the nearby Subi Reef into an island with facilities when the Philippines decided to put its plans on hold pending the outcome of its claim at The Hague, a case it won last year.

“So, now that that is finished, I think we could already resume and that is also what our President wants—to improve the facilities here,” he was quoted saying.