MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine military deployed a Japanese-donated patrol plane Wednesday to a disputed shoal guarded by China in the South China Sea, and the aircraft did not encounter any Chinese resistance, officials said.
The military's Northern Luzon Command said the Beechcraft King Air C90 flew low at 800 feet (240 meters) around Scarborough Shoal on its first mission for the Philippine navy. It said it spotted nine Chinese vessels, including four Chinese coast guard ships, and four Philippine fishing boats.
"The Filipino pilots heard no challenge from the Chinese coast guard," the military command said in a statement, referring to the practice of Chinese forces to warn foreign vessels or aircraft by radio that they have entered Chinese-claimed territory and should leave immediately.
Earlier this month, a U.S. guided missile destroyer sailed near Scarborough Shoal to assert freedom of navigation, sparking protests from China. Beijing said it would take "necessary measures" to protect its sovereignty after the USS Hopper sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough without China's permission.
China took control of Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine ships. The tiny, uninhabited reef is about 200 kilometers (120 miles) west of the main northern Philippine island of Luzon, and about 600 kilometers (370 miles) southeast of China.
The Northern Luzon Command said it "will utilize all available assets and resources to protect our national territory ... and assert our sovereign rights over our maritime domain."
The plane is one of five refurbished Beechcraft aircraft donated by Japan to help the Philippines improve its capability to watch and protect its territory. Two of the aircraft were delivered to the Philippines in March last year and the rest are expected to be delivered this year.
Japan and the Philippines, which are both locked in separate territorial disputes with China, signed a pact in March 2016 that allowed Japan to transfer defense equipment and technology to the Philippines in the latest sign of blossoming security ties.