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(Updated 11:27 a.m.) Aside from undertaking reclamation work, China is also already claiming the airspace over disputed territories in the South China Sea, a Philippine military official told a Senate hearing Thursday.
Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)’s Western Command based in Palawan, said Air Force planes conducting patrol over the disputed area were told over the radio in six separate incidents that they were flying on a Chinese “military security area."
"As we were conducting our routine maritime air patrols and flying in international airspace, our Air Force hover aircraft was challenged over the radio,” Lopez said during a Senate hearing on recent Chinese reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
"The Chinese conveyed that our own planes were on their military security area,” he added.
Lopez also said that China has already undertaken reclamation work in seven “occupied features” in the West Philippine Sea.
He added that the areas where China built artificial islands all “used to be submerged” and “incapable of human habitation.”
Most of the artificial islands already have six-storey buildings and piers, he added.
Lopez further said that the reclamation work at Subi Reef is his unit’s “focus of priority attention” at present, since it is already posing “challenges” for aircrafts departing from Pag-asa Island.
The Philippines, which calls the disputed areas the “West Philippine Sea," has sought international arbitration before a Netherlands-based tribunal to nullify China’s massive claims over the South China Sea.
China uses the so-called “nine-dash line” to claim ownership of almost the entire South China Sea, while the Philippines uses the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as basis for its claim.
Beijing earlier rejected international arbitration proceedings to settle its territorial dispute with the Philippines, insisting instead on bilateral talks to settle the matter.
Aside from the Philippines, China also has overlapping claims over parts of the South China Sea with Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
DFA exec: ‘China is not an enemy’
Despite China’s increasing efforts to stake its claim in disputed territories, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Asec. Benito Valeriano said Manila continues to maintain good diplomatic ties with Beijing.
"China is not an enemy. In fact, we have bilateral relations with China, diplomatic relations. Our approach to this is through the rule of law, that’s why we sought arbitration,” Valeriano said during the hearing, when asked by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV how the DFA views China.
Valeriano said the Philippines has filed eight diplomatic protests against China since April 2014 — all of which were responded by the Chinese embassy in Manila.
"We immediately filed diplomatic protests right after we received the report from the Armed Forces. Each time we filed the protests, the Chinese side did not ignore the protests, but they in fact replied to the protests,” the DFA official said.
He nevertheless added that China has consistently asserted its “indisputable sovereignty” over the West Philippine Sea, in response to the diplomatic protests filed by the Philippines. — KG/RSJ, GMA News