Lorenzana: No cause for concern, China warning flares not directed at PH aircraft

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Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana says his inquiry showed that China's warning flares were not directed against Philippine aircraft (FILE PHOTO).

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 6) — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Wednesday downplayed concerns over China's firing of warning flares in the West Philippine Sea, saying these were not directed against Philippine aircraft.

Lorenzana in a statement sent to CNN Philippines said his inquiry showed that the flares were fired from three Chinese-occupied artificial islands "while our planes were passing by." The Philippine Air Force was then conducting Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance mission in areas contested by China, Lorenzana said.

"None of our aircrafts flew over these islands. Hence, these were not directed against our aircrafts as they are about 5 nautical miles away and at an altitude of 5,000 ft. distance from the artificial islands," Lorenzana explained.

The country's defense chief suspects the move was made to "[let] our aircraft know where they (the Chinese) are lest our aircraft stray over them."

"It is just a warning to communicate where they are, nothing more. They were never a direct threat to our aircrafts," Lorenzana said.

He stressed that the incidents were not a cause for concern, and no Philippine aircraft was put in danger.

Armed Forces Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence Major General Reuben Basiao told lawmakers in a House briefing on Tuesday that the country's military aircraft received six flare warnings from China from January to June this year. Describing China as the most aggressive among countries claiming parts of the South China Sea, Basiao said Chinese vessels would also block Philippine maritime patrols and other vessels bringing supplies to military ships deployed in the disputed waters.

Malacañang has deferred to Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. on what action the government should take following Basiao's report.

"We'll take the stand of the SND (Secretary of National Defense), we'll have to validate what exactly happened there," Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a media briefing prior to Lorenzana's statement.

Locsin said he will fire a diplomatic protest once the incident is confirmed by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.

The Philippines had filed diplomatic protests with China over the presence of its warships and survey vessels in Philippine-claimed and owned areas. Since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in 2016 and declared a reinvigorated friendship with China, the government has filed a total of 63 diplomatic protests or notes verbale, Locsin said in September.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including a portion called West Philippine Sea which Manila claims and occupies. Beijing’s sweeping claims had been invalidated by a Hague-based arbitral tribunal created under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but it continues to reject the landmark ruling.

CNN Philippines' Xave Gregorio contributed to this report.