Australian plane 'near disputed islands on patrol'

Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, seen in this aerial file photo.
Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, seen in this aerial file photo.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY • An Australian military surveillance plane flew near disputed areas of the South China Sea, it was revealed yesterday, with the crew heard warning China's navy that it was on a freedom of navigation mission.

"A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion was conducting a routine maritime patrol in the region as part of Operation Gateway from Nov 25 to Dec 4," a defence department spokesman said. "Under Operation Gateway, the Australian Defence Force conducts routine maritime surveillance patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea as a part of Australia's enduring contribution to the preservation of regional security and stability in South-east Asia."

The comments from Australia follow a recording released by the BBC on Tuesday after a reporting assignment in the Spratly archipelago. In the scratchy radio recording, an RAAF pilot is heard speaking to the Chinese navy. "China navy, China navy," the voice said.

"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."

The BBC said it recorded the audio from the RAAF plane on Nov 25. It said the message was repeated several times but the Chinese did not respond.

The Australian newspaper said it understood the aircraft did not fly within the 12-nautical-mile limit China claims around the islands it has built up.

In October, Washington infuriated Beijing when the USS Lassen guided missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one land formation claimed by China in the disputed Spratly Islands chain.

In a communique last month, US allies Japan and Australia called on "all claimants to halt large-scale land reclamation, construction, and use for military purposes" in the South China Sea.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'Australian plane 'near disputed islands on patrol''. Print Edition | Subscribe