CAVITE, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine military said Monday it will continue aerial patrols of a Chinese-held shoal near the South China Sea despite protests from Beijing over the flights, especially using Japanese-donated aircraft.
When asked if the Philippine military will stop the surveillance of Scarborough Shoal following the protests from Beijing, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the flights will continue because the area is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, giving the country internationally recognized sovereign rights.
"No, we will not. Those areas are within our EEZ. They're the ones who have no rights there," Lorenzana said.
China raised concerns over the patrols, including one that used a Japanese-donated TC-90 plane, when Chinese and Philippine officials met in Manila last month to discuss their territorial disputes in the South China Sea, said a Philippine official who was involved in the meeting.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss issues taken up during the closed-door meeting.
Japanese defense officials turned over the last three of five TC-90 aircraft to the Philippine navy in a ceremony witnessed by Lorenzana and top navy commanders at a naval base in Cavite province south of Manila on Monday.
The refurbished Beechcraft TC-90s, which can fly twice the distance that existing Philippine patrol aircraft can cover, will be used to respond to disasters and for patrols and surveillance, Lorenzana said in a speech in which he thanked the Japanese government.
Japan initially leased the TC-90s to the Philippines but later transferred them as a grant after restrictions on Japanese donations of excess defense and military equipment to allies and other countries were eased, he said.
Two of the aircraft were delivered in March last year and one was used by the Philippine navy for the first time in late January to patrol the Scarborough area, where it spotted nine Chinese vessels, including four Chinese coast guard ships, and four Philippine fishing boats, the military's Northern Luzon Command reported at the time.
Earlier in January, a U.S. guided missile destroyer sailed near Scarborough to assert freedom of navigation, sparking protests from China. Beijing said then that it would take "necessary measures" to protect its sovereignty after the USS Hopper sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough without China's permission.
China took control of Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine ships. The tiny, uninhabited reef is about 200 kilometers (120 miles) west of the main northern Philippine island of Luzon, and about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) southeast of the Chinese coast.
Japan and the Philippines, which are locked in separate territorial disputes with China, signed a pact in March 2016 that allowed Japan to transfer defense equipment and technology to the Philippines in the latest sign of blossoming security ties.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.