LONDON, United Kingdom – An Australian aircraft flew near one of China’s artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea to exercise “international freedom of navigation rights,” according to a BBC report that aired Monday night, December 14.
The Australian freedom of navigation operation is revealed in the wake of renewed tension between China and the US over the latter’s deployment of its most advanced surveillance aircraft to the region.
The BBC, which idenfitied the plane as a military aircraft, captured the Australian aircraft radio message: “China Navy, China Navy….We are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights, in international airspace in accordance with the international civil aviation convention, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – over.”
Australia supports “rule of law” in settling the maritime dispute in the region, but is not known to have made any announcements that it will deploy freedom of navigation operations to defy China’s claims of sovereignty over the seas.
BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes flew around the South China Sea with the permission of the Philippine government, which calls the area the West Philippine Sea.
Onboard a small aircraft – a single-engine Cessna 206 – he captured the newest known footage of the expanse of China’s sweeping claims over the seas. (READ: BBC: Flying close to Beijing’s new South China Sea islands)
The Cessna plane was repeatedly harassed by Chinese Navy when it got near Gaven Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Mischief Reef. The Filipino civilian pilots flew away from Gaven and Fiery Cross reefs when they heard the Chinese warnings, but defied them when they were near Mischief Reef.
The Filipino pilots replied: “Chinese Navy, this is Philippine civilian aircraft en route to Palawan, carrying civilian passengers. We are not a military aircraft; we are a civilian single-engine aircraft.”
Mischief Reef is within the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The two other reefs are located outside the country’s EEZ.
The BBC noted the “clear view of the new runway” on Mischief Reef, one of 3 China is believed to be building in the disputed seas. The others are being built on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef.
Former military chief General Gregorio Catapang previously warned that China’s reclamation of Mischief Reef could cut the Philippine military’s access to some areas in the South China Sea. – Rappler.com