Philippines may lodge protest with China after military planes are seen in Spratly Islands 

Photos showing two transport aircraft landing on Mischief Reef could be sign Beijing is growing more assertive in disputed waterway, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 6:55pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 10:52pm

Manila may lodge a protest with Beijing after two Chinese military planes reportedly landed on an artificial island within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, the country’s top diplomat said on Wednesday.

Regional analysts said that the move showed Beijing was growing more assertive in the disputed waterway.

The transport planes, believed to be Xian Y-7s, were seen landing on a ramp near Runway 21 on Mischief Reef, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on Wednesday, citing surveillance photographs taken in January obtained from a source. 

China built the artificial island at the gas-rich atoll in the disputed Spratly Islands in 2015. The reef is the closest of China’s artificial islands to the Philippines, and lies within its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters that the defence and military establishments had been asked to confirm the presence of the aircraft, after which the Philippines could ask China to explain it.

“Filing a protest is one of the diplomatic actions being considered, pending a confirmation from the defence department,” Cayetano said, adding that the Philippines had proposed claimants reverse defence enhancements in the Spratly Islands.

“Many claimants are putting embankments, radar and other defensive mechanisms – the challenge now is how to stop it and roll it back,” he said.

China’s defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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The two planes were seen on the airstrip about 20 to 50 metres apart in the photos, according to the Inquirer. There were no military aircraft in aerial photos of the reef taken in December and obtained by the newspaper.

The report comes two months after the newspaper published photographs taken between June and July last year showing Chinese construction activities in the Spratlys that it said were transforming the seven reefs, which are also claimed by the Philippines, into “island fortresses”.

If confirmed, it could mean Beijing is moving to shore up its facilities on the controversial artificial islands, regional experts say, and it could be a challenge to Manila since the reef falls inside its exclusive economic zone. 

Based on the Soviet-designed Antonov An-24 aircraft, the Xian Y-7 is a transport plane suitable for civilian or military use, and it could be used to move supplies, equipment or even personnel to the artificial islands, according to a retired Chinese army colonel.

“As China builds up its facilities on the islands, regular flights are needed to transport mail, supplies and equipment, even personnel. The Xian Y-7 is a low-cost but efficient choice,” said Yue Gang, who is now a military analyst based in Beijing.

Yue said that compared to the Shaanxi Y-8 – one of China’s biggest military and civilian transport planes – using the smaller Xian Y-7 in the contested area would be “lower profile and less provocative” towards neighbouring countries. 

“The fact that there were two aircraft indicates that this was part of preparations to set up a regular flight route, because there would be no need to fly two planes there if the regular flight route had already been established,” Yue added.

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Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Maritime Security Programme in Singapore, said that it was not a surprise to see a transport plane like the Xian Y-7 being used in the area, but that there was concern in the region about what Beijing planned to do with its runways in the Spratlys.

“If China can land civilian planes, military transport planes in the Spratlys outposts, it’s only a matter of time before high-powered [aircraft] such as fighter jets and bombers may land there,” Koh said.

“Besides ... transporting personnel and material to these islands as a routine activity, Beijing may also use such opportunities to demonstrate its ability to up the ante from a mere deployment of these harmless assets to armed planes, if necessary.”

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It is not the first time a Chinese military aircraft has landed in the controversial artificial islands: in 2016, a People’s Liberation Army plane touched down at Fiery Cross Reef. 

China has built four 3km airstrips in the Spratly Islands – at Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Woody Island – amid protests from Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, which all claim territory there. 

While the Xian Y-7 can be used for both civilian and military purposes, Koh said that Beijing’s activities at Mischief Reef could be part of efforts to reinforce its control over the Spratlys, which include Thitu Island, controlled by Manila. It could also have an eye on the resource-rich Reed Bank, northeast of the archipelago, where the Philippines has several energy operations, he added.

Additional reporting by Reuters