An American reconnaissance plane provided “eye in the sky” support for a Filipino resupply mission last week to a Manila-occupied atoll in disputed South China Sea waters, Philippine government officials said Wednesday in responding to questions about the overflight.
A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft could be seen circling in the skies near Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal on Sept. 8 as China Coast Guard and maritime militia ships surrounded and harassed Philippines Coast Guard ships that were escorting resupply boats on the mission.
A BenarNews correspondent and other reporters, who were embedded with the mission after receiving special permission to travel aboard the Philippines Coast Guard ships, witnessed the plane flying over the area repeatedly.
“With the changing threat situation and the actions of our opponents in the West Philippine Sea, we need to leverage our alliances to enforce a rules-based international order and UNCLOS,” Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. told reporters on Wednesday before his congressional confirmation hearing.
Teodoro said the flight did not violate any law.
“But in the eyes of China, it might be illegal because they want to occupy everything,” he said.
The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s name for waters it claims in the South China Sea while UNCLOS is an acronym for the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
A similar reconnaissance plane was spotted during an earlier resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal on Aug. 22, but Philippine lawmakers did not react until after the more recent mission.
The shoal, which lies in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, is part of the Spratly Islands but the atoll is claimed by both the Philippine and China as well as Vietnam and Taiwan. While China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have their own territorial claims.
On Tuesday, Philippine Sen. Robin Padilla raised questions about the U.S. Navy flights, saying they could agitate Beijing.
Defense officials responded by saying there was nothing wrong with the U.S. plane patrolling the area. They cited international law and the longstanding Mutual Defense Treaty between Manila and Washington.
Defense Undersecretary Ignacio Madriaga told senators that the Philippine military had coordinated the flight with U.S. forces.
“The American presence there is just a way to boost our maritime domain awareness and to have like an ‘eye in the sky’ watching over the waters,” he said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), international ships and aircraft have the freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in nations’ exclusive economic zones, said Jonathan Malaya, the National Security Council’s assistant director-general.
Malaya, who also serves as spokesman of the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, said the U.S. had conducted surveillance only in the EEZ, which is covered by the treaty between the two nations.
“Remember that any armed attack on a public vessel of the Philippines can be a ground to invoke the [treaty] so I think the Americans were just doing due diligence. They wanted to know what was happening in case there was an armed attack, they’d know exactly what happened,” Malaya said in a televised interview on Wednesday.
“We see nothing wrong, they were just monitoring the situation in accordance with the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.
A lift for morale
Security officials said the presence of the U.S. plane would not heighten tensions with China because the resupply mission was conducted entirely by the Philippines.
On these missions, coast guard ships are deployed to escort small boats bringing supplies and a fresh batch of Navy personnel to the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded World War II-era ship that serves as Manila’s military outpost at Ayungin Shoal.
“There was no U.S. Navy ship or U.S. Navy supply ship joining us in this resupply mission,” Malaya said.
Philippines Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tarriela said the U.S. plane’s presence lifted the spirits of the crews.
“I have to be very honest about it. It made them more confident. Their morale is also high knowing the fact that the U.S. government is watching over the sky,” Tarriela told reporters after Tuesday’s congressional hearing.
On the bridge of the coast guard’s BRP Cabra on Sept. 8, crew members were ecstatic upon seeing the U.S. plane. The Cabra was carrying a BenarNews journalist.
“This is a U.S. Navy aircraft in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal observing all activities between Filipino and PRC [People’s Republic of China] coast guard vessels to include … any unsafe or unprofessional actions,” a voice from the U.S. Navy plane said over the radio.
In Washington on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Defense did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment on the flight.
During the standoff at sea last Friday, at least a dozen more radio exchanges ensued between the Philippine and Chinese ships.
“Your behavior has infringed upon [the] authority, security, and interest of China. I warn you, please leave the area immediately. Any consequences will be borne by you,” a voice from CCG 5305, the largest of the China Coast Guard ships present, warned the Cabra’s crew