THITU ISLAND (AFP) - Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana flew to a disputed South China Sea island on Friday (April 21), brushing off a challenge by the Chinese military while asserting Manila's territorial claim to the strategic region.
"This is just a normal visit within our territory, which we believe and we know is (our) territory," the minister told reporters who accompanied him on the brief trip.
China claims most of the South China Sea, including Thitu island which Lorenzana visited and the Philippines calls Pag-asa island.
In recent years Beijing has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands, including on Subi Reef about 26 kilometres from Thitu, which can house military facilities.
Lorenzana said construction would start "within the next few weeks" for a quay on Thitu where construction materials will be landed for repairs on an existing airstrip on the largest of nine Philippine-garrisoned outcrops in the Spratly archipelago.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys, either wholly or in part.
As the military transport plane bearing Lorenzana and local officials of Palawan island, the largest land mass close to the Spratlys, prepared to land, the minister said the pilots received a warning from Chinese forces on Subi.
He said the pilots were warned the aircraft was illegally entering Chinese territory, a routine for all Philippine aircraft landing on the Thitu airstrip since China reclaimed Subi. He said his pilots disregarded the warning.
"That's their protocol. That's procedural. We also reply that we are flying over Philippine territory," he said.
Lorenzana visited Thitu more than a week after President Rodrigo Duterte pulled back from an announcement to visit the island on June 12 and raise the Philippine flag there.
Duterte said later he had called off the trip "because we value our friendship" with Beijing.
Reversing the course set by predecessor Benigno Aquino, Duterte has sought to improve his nation's relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves.
Lorenzana however said Duterte was not backing down from his orders for the military to reinforce its installations in the Spratlys, and has alloted 1.6 billion pesos (S$44.8 million) for these.
He said both China and Vietnam have long been fortifying their own garrisons on nearby outcrops.
"We all know that China is the most powerful country in our neighbourhood, they are economically powerful, also militarily," Lorenzana said.
"We are trying manage the issue and talk to them... settle this dispute in the South China Sea."
As Lorenzana flew to Thitu, the Philippine coast guard announced a group of Filipino fishermen have accused China's coast guard of shooting at their vessel in another section of the Spratlys.
Philippine officials said they were investigating the reported attack on the Princess Johann boat, which the crew said occurred near the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll on March 27.
There were no casualties during the incident, authorities added.
"(Princess Johann) was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese coast guards on board," a Philippine Coast Guard statement said.
If confirmed, the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since Duterte came to power.
Asked about the incident at a regular briefing, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: "I have no information on that. And as you have said, it is unclear who was responsible. China will also need to verify the facts."
He reiterated China's position on the disputed area, saying: "We have always been clear about our position on the South China Sea issue. We are willing to work with the Philippines to deal with any maritime-related issues, to create a conducive environment for the healthy development of our bilateral relations. Since President Duterte's visit to China last year, our bilateral ties have quickly improved. We are making steady progress with our bilateral cooperation in all areas. Overall, both sides are able to build upon the consensus of the two leaders, and are able to manage maritime issues through negotiations and coordination."