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21 Apr, 2017 19:05

China 'challenged' Philippine aircraft carrying govt, military staff over S. China Sea – officials

China 'challenged' Philippine aircraft carrying govt, military staff over S. China Sea – officials

Chinese forces attempted to drive away two Philippine planes carrying Manila’s military and defense chiefs, according to officials. The incident occurred near an artificial Chinese island in the disputed South China Sea.

The aircraft was carrying Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano and around 40 journalists when it was "challenged" by China on Friday, AP reported.

China reportedly warned the Philippine planes that they were entering the periphery of Chinese installations, and to avoid mishap they should turn around.

In response, the Philippine aircraft messaged back, stating that they were flying over territory belonging to Manila.

"Those were just exchanges and no untoward incident happened," Lorenzana told reporters, adding that such instances are normal, amid the unresolved territorial conflicts in the South China Sea.

The incident occurred just 25 kilometers (15 miles) away from the Chinese-held Subi Reef, located in the disputed Spratly island chain.

When asked by AP what he thought of the bird's eye view of China's development of the Subi Reef – one of the numerous man-made islands that Beijing has built across the Spratly island chain – Lorenzana gave a nod to Beijing's resolve.

"A grudging admiration to the Chinese for their resolve and single-mindedness to bolster their claims," he said. "I wished we had the same."

Once the aircraft landed on Pag-asa, known internationally as Thitu, Lorenzana announced that the Philippines would start to develop the island, the second-largest island in the Spratly archipelago, which is also claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Lorenzana told troops that Duterte had ordered him to inspect the island and ensure facilities are built there as soon as possible. About 1.6 billion pesos (US$32 million) has been set aside for construction, including a fishing port, solar power, water desalination plant, improved housing for soldiers, and facilities for marine research and tourists.

READ MORE: Duterte asks US why it didn't send warships to stop China's island construction

He stated that China may protest the planned construction, but said he does not expect the situation to worsen into a confrontation.

Manila also plans to fortify small buildings on eight much smaller reefs and atolls occupied by Filipino forces.

Meanwhile, Philippine security officials also stated on Friday that they were checking reports that Filipino fisherman were harassed by the Chinese coast guard in the South China Sea a few days ago. Lorenzana said that Manila will file a diplomatic protest with China if the claims turn out to be true.

It comes just two weeks after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his country's military to occupy and fortify islands in the South China Sea, in order to make a "strong point" amid its territorial dispute with China.

PREAD MORE: Philippines' Duterte orders occupation of South China Sea islands

The Spratly islands have long been a point of contention between Manila and Beijing, as China lays claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and has tried to cement its foothold by transforming seven mostly submerged reefs into island outposts, some of which have radars, runways, and weapons systems.

The US has insisted on freedom of navigation in the disputed waterway, while The Hague Tribunal ruled last year that China has caused irreparable harm to the ecosystem of the Spratlys and breached the Philippines' sovereign rights.