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Lawmaker seeks probe of ‘covert’ US military flights in Philippine airspace

A PARTY-LIST congresswoman on Monday sought an investigation of “covert” flights involving American military aircraft in Philippine airspace, which she said was “deeply troubling.”

“It is clear that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and visiting forces agreement (VFA) have turned the entire Philippines into a de facto US military base, compromising our national sovereignty,” Party-list Rep. France L. Castro said in a statement.

She said these flights might be contributing to the increased presence of Chinese vessels in the South China Sea. “It is possible that these flights are serving as a catalyst for China’s assertiveness in the area. The continued presence of US military forces in our country only exacerbates tensions and compromises our ability to assert our own sovereignty.”

The US Embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” R. Marcos on Sunday urged the government of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., her brother, to monitor the presence of US military planes in the country, as she questioned the entry of a second C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft in two days.

Authorities should find out whether covert US military flights had aggravated the already tense situation in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait and weigh the risks to public safety, she told reporters in a Viber message.

Ms. Marcos, who heads the Senate foreign relations committee, said too little is known about US military activity in the Philippines, “while we constantly call out the presence of Chinese vessels in the South China Sea.”

She said she is aware of exercises between Philippine and foreign militaries this month. “But the same zeal in tracking any violations in our maritime territory and exclusive economic zone must also apply where Philippine air traffic rules and joint military agreements with the US are concerned.”

On July 8, a C-17 that took off from Tokyo the night before with flight code RCH323 was spotted north of Busuanga Island past 10 a.m., Ms. Marcos said.

The plane was off the radar until late afternoon when it appeared again in the same vicinity flying toward Polillo Island before leaving the Philippine territory past 6 p.m., she added.

On Friday, Ms. Marcos issued a statement on a similar military plane that landed in Manila, but which US flight planners had failed to coordinate with ground handlers at Manila’s international airport.

The first C-17 aircraft with flight code MC244/RCH244 landed in Manila at 6:03 a.m. on July 7 after leaving Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, she said, citing global flight tracker AirNav Systems.

It then flew to Palawan before 1 p.m. and headed for Yokota Air Base in the city of Fussa, Japan later in the afternoon, she added.

Although the plane’s call signal was repeatedly out of coverage during its journey, flight tracker Flightradar24 recorded its departure from Palawan shortly before 4 p.m., Manila time, and its arrival at Yokota Air Base four-and-a-half hours later, the senator said.

The flight route from Palawan showed the plane passing over Pampanga, Cagayan and off the eastern coasts of Batanes and Taiwan before it landed at Yokota Air Base, Ms. Marcos said.

Ms. Castro said the congressional probe could shed light on the extent and implications of these covert flights, including the potential consequences on Philippine national security and sovereignty.

“We cannot allow our nation to be used as a pawn in geopolitical power struggles,” she said. “It is our duty as representatives of the Filipino people to ensure that our country’s interests are protected.”

The lawmaker said Filipinos should demand transparency and accountability from the government regarding the presence and activities of foreign military forces in the Philippines.

The C-17 Globemaster is a high-wing, four-engine, T-tailed military transport aircraft made by Boeing. It can carry large equipment, supplies and troops directly to small airfields in harsh terrain anywhere in the world, according to the aircraft maker’s website.

The Philippines this year gave the US wider access to its military bases under their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Joint patrols between the Philippines and US in the South China Sea might begin later this year, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said in May, days after Washington reiterated its commitment to defend the Philippines from an attack at sea. — BMDC

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