MANILA, PHILIPPINES - Philippine aircraft will continue to fly their usual routes over disputed reefs in the South China Sea, the country's president said Monday, defying China's challenges to its planes and those of the United States.
President Benigno Aquino III told reporters there is no declared air defense identification zone over the area and "we will still fly the routes that we fly based on international law."
"We will still exercise our rights over our exclusive economic zone," he said, adding that the "bottom line is, it has to be clear, we will defend our rights to the best of our abilities."
Aquino pointed to the disparity in the military strength of China and the Philippines, saying China should not bully a smaller country because it would hurt its image as it tries to create goodwill with its trading partners.
The Philippines is pursuing international arbitration and diplomatic efforts to try to resolve the territorial dispute with China.
When asked about what coordination the Philippines is having with the United States, a key military ally, to address the problem, Aquino said the two countries are helping each other but that he could not reveal details.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters he will meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii on Wednesday to discuss concerns over China's apparent attempt to impose an ADIZ in the area.
"We will ask the extent of help they can give us ... because right now we are the one being bullied," he said. "Let us see what assistance they can give us to more or less keep us safe from harassment."
Gazmin said Filipino and Japanese defense officials were also discussing the possibility of transferring Japanese military equipment to the Philippines, which has one of the most ill-equipped armed forces in the region.
China said Thursday that it is entitled to keep watch over airspace and seas surrounding artificial islands it created in the South China Sea, following an exchange in which its navy warned off a U.S. surveillance plane. The United States said that its own aerial patrolling was in accordance with international law and that it will seek to preserve the ability of not just the U.S. but all countries to exercise freedom of navigation and flight.
Philippine military officials have said China has challenged its air patrols at least six times since last month, with a recording asking the planes to leave the Chinese military area to avoid misunderstanding.
China's construction has intensified frictions in the South China Sea, where Beijing's expansive claims to the waters and reefs overlap with those of the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.