Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said China’s claim to airspace above its occupied South China Sea islands was wrong and could become a “flashpoint” for conflict.
The remarks marked a shift in tone from Duterte, who has tried to build closer relations with Beijing.
“They have to rethink that because that would be a flashpoint someday and even, you know, warning others,” Duterte told an audience that included the US ambassador.
In his third state-of-the-nation address, the 73-year-old referred to China’s attempts to drive other nations away from the disputed waters.
“I hope that China would temper … its behaviour … one of these days a hothead commander there will just press a trigger.
“You cannot create an island, it’s man-made, and you say that the air above these artificial islands is yours. That is wrong because those waters are what we consider international sea,” the populist president said.
“The right of innocent passage is guaranteed. It does not need any permission to sail through the open seas.”
This month the Philippines said it was concerned about the increasing number of threatening Chinese radio warnings telling Philippine aircraft and ships to retreat from artificial islands.
The BBC reported that China’s warnings to Philippine aircraft were much more menacing than those delivered to their US counterparts.
“Philippine military aircraft, I’m warning you again, leave immediately or you will bear responsibility for all the consequences,” an aggressive voice can be heard saying.
Earlier this month the Chinese military repeatedly told a US Navy reconnaissance plane to “leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding” while flying near some of the Chinese-held islands.
US aircrews told the BBC that the warnings they received were routine and had no effect on their operations.
Manila said that in the second half of 2017, Philippine military aircraft received Chinese radio warnings at least 46 times when patrolling near the disputed Spratly islands.
China has transformed seven disputed reefs into islands using dredged sand and seabed, ignoring the claims of Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. Malaysia and Brunei also claim chains of islands, barren islets and atolls.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque defiantly told the media: “They will not stop us. We will continue with our flights. We will assert our sovereignty. And if need be, Filipino pilots will die for our sovereignty.”
Roque also said that an investigation would be conducted into the recent Chinese threats, which now appear to be coming from the artificial islands themselves.
“We are asserting our sovereignty. We conducted the flight over our islands,” Roque said.
The Philippine military is under-funded. Picture credit: US Department of Defence