The conduct of air operations of four US jet fighters and two attack and rescue helicopters near Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal on Tuesday was part of agreed activities between the Philippines and the US, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said yesterday.
“These are agreed activities that will help enhance maritime security in this part of our seas and an assurance for those who navigate these sea lanes,” AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.
Padilla issued the statement in reaction to the recent US Pacific Command’s Air Contingent sortie over international waters but within the general vicinity of the Chinese-occupied Panatag Shoal.
The shoal is located 120 nautical miles off Zambales province and is well within the country’s 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
A traditional fishing ground of Filipinos for decades, the area was seized by China in 2012.
At the conclusion of this year’s joint Phl-US Balikatan exercises early this month, visiting US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that 200 US servicemen who took part in the drill, as well as some of the USS Stennis Strike Group’s embarked air power, will be staying behind for joint air patrols with their Filipino counterparts.
The return of US servicemen and their equipment in the country on rotation basis is in line with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that the two allies have forged in the wake of China’s aggressive actions in pursuit of its nine-dash line maritime claim in the South China Sea.
US jet fighters that are now based at Clark Air Field in Pampanga are five A-10 Thunderbolts attack aircraft, three HH-60G Pave Hawk attack and search and rescue helicopters and one MC-130H Combat Talon, an aircraft designed to perform resupply and infiltration as well as other special operations.
Panatag Shoal is strategically located along the busy international shipping lanes where billions worth of trade pass yearly. China is reportedly planning to transform the shoal into an artificial island for military purposes.
China’s reclamation plan over the area is line with its continuing move to put up its second island defense chain extending from the South China Sea towards the Pacific Ocean, passing through Bashi Channel near the island province of Batanes.
In his lecture on the China’s plan in the region, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned that Beijing is planning to put up a military base on its illegally occupied Panatag Shoal.
This move is part of Beijing’s grand design to enable its attack submarines to sail towards the Pacific with ease and be within the striking distance of the US mainland and US military bases in Guam and Hawaii, Carpio said.
Local and foreign security and defense analysts also issued the same warning, saying China’s first island defense chain in the South China Sea is already nearing operational stage and it is now moving towards establishing their planned second island defense chain, starting from Panatag.
At present, China’s air and naval facilities in its man-made islands on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, Zamora (Subi) Reef and Panganiban (Mischief) Reef are almost complete.
Security analysts said that once China’s first island defense chain becomes fully operational, this will impede the free flow of trade and commerce in the South China Sea, affecting not only the Philippines but also almost all neighboring states as well as South Korea and Japan.