MANILA — The Philippines may ask the United States to send surveillance planes to help it monitor a disputed area in the South China Sea, a presidential spokesman said July 2, in a move that could deepen tensions with China.
The move to request P-3C Orion electronic surveillance planes would first require the approval of the top defense advisers of President Benigno Aquino III, Ramon Carandang said.
The request “is a possibility as a way to enhance our monitoring capabilities,” Carandang told Agence France-Presse. “But definitely, this is just for monitoring and surveillance purposes.”
The statement comes two weeks after Aquino pulled out a coast guard ship and a fisheries bureau boat that had been engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese ships in Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocky outcrops in the South China Sea.
The shoal sits about 230 kilometers (140 miles) from the western coast of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon. The nearest major Chinese landmass is 1,200 kilometers northwest of the shoal, according to Philippine Navy maps.
China welcomed the pullout, and reciprocated by removing its boats in the area, though both sides have said there was no accord to permanently abandon the area.
Carandang said the request for U.S. surveillance planes should not be viewed by China as a form of aggression, and sought to downplay fears it could re-ignite tensions in the region.
“It is not inconsistent with our policy to de-escalate tensions in the area. First of all, it is only for surveillance, and there is no armed component” to the request, he said.
Chinese Embassy officials here were not immediately available for comment, but Beijing has in the past repeatedly warned against U.S. involvement in the dispute.
Last week, China said it would oppose any military provocation in the South China Sea, which it called its “indisputable territory.”
That warning was apparently directed at the United States, which had recently launched major naval exercises in Hawaii involving 22 nations.
The Scarborough Shoal dispute began after Chinese government vessels blocked Philippine ships on April 10 from arresting Chinese fishermen near the shoal.
Since then, both countries have maintained ships there to press their respective claims to the area.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters close to the coasts of neighboring countries. The Philippines says the shoal is well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.