Philippines, China trade accusations over 'aggressive action' in disputed waters

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MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines accused China of aggressive maneuvers against its reconnaissance plane and fishermen in disputed seas where Beijing has stepped up construction of artificial islands, but China reiterated its claim on the strategic waterways.

A Chinese vessel flashed powerful lights and radioed the Philippine navy plane to leave the area near one of the islands in the Spratlys chain in the South China Sea, Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said Friday.

"This is an aggressive action on the part of the Chinese vessel," Cabunoc said. "They said, 'You're entering Chinese territory, leave.'"

He said the incident happened on Sunday closed to Subi Reef, which is near Pag-asa —also called Thitu — Island, which has been occupied by Philippine troops since the 1970s. Among the hundreds of Spratly isles, coral reefs and shoals, less than 50 are occupied by troops from countries with competing claims — the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

China claims most of the South China Sea on historical grounds and in recent years has dispatched more vessels and patrols to stake its claim, alarming neighbors. Satellite images have shown massive reclamation work on seven islands, which the Philippines and the U.S. say could be used to build bases for refueling naval and air patrols and establishing a stronger military presence.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that Philippine planes had "illegally flown over Chinese waters on numerous occasions recently" and that Chinese forces had issued a radio warning. He said it was "untrue" that a powerful light was used against the Philippine plane.

He said that China's armed forces will continue to conduct surveillance over the waters and skies in the area, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

He also dismissed a report by the Philippine Fisheries Bureau that the Chinese coast guard earlier this month fired a water canon at Filipino fishermen and seized some of their catch near Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012. Hong said the shoal was Chinese territory and urged the Philippines to ensure its fishermen are aware of the "illegality of fishing" there.

The Philippines filed a case in 2013 with the international arbitration tribunal challenging China's claims.

The head of the Philippine Fisheries Bureau, Asis Perez, called on global action to stop China's reclamation activities, saying they caused massive coral destruction — about 311 hectares (768.6 acres) — that will take thousands of years to repair.

"This is not a simple dispute over territory, but there is actually a huge environmental impact that will affect not just us," he said.

Beijing says the structures being built are for public service use and to support Chinese fishermen.

At a summit next week, Southeast Asian leaders will seek ways to hasten plans for a binding code with China that will govern behavior in the disputed South China Sea. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said the reclamation work and the code of conduct will be an "important topic" at the summit starting Monday.

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