MANILA - China’s ambassador to the Philippines on Tuesday dismissed as "non-sense" concern over the landing of a Chinese military plane in the Philippines as critics warned of its implications on Manila’s sovereignty.
Malacañang on Sunday confirmed that a plane of China's People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force was cleared for landing at the Davao International Airport after photos spread on social media last week.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque earlier said the Ilyushin IL-76 strategic airlifter was bound for Cairns, Australia and had to make a stop in Davao City for refueling.
The landing was confirmed amid concern over China's militarization of the South China Sea islands, including the deployment of missiles and landing of bomber planes.
The Philippines recently confirmed it was taking "diplomatic actions" over Chinese incursions in the disputed waters.
Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua, however, clarified that the plane was on its way to New Zealand for a bilateral military exercise.
Zhao said the Chinese military plane followed military and diplomatic protocol in making the refueling stop.
He said it was a simple event that should not be given too much meaning.
“I’m really puzzled and even surprised that some of the people here [are] taking the landing of Chinese military jet as a kind of military threat to the Philippines. And even they indicated that this might be the beginning of our invasion,” Zhao told reporters.
“Please allow me to be blunt, it’s nonsense. We have never thought of going to war with our good neighbor, our good friend that is the Philippines.”
Zhao added that the military plane would not have landed in Davao City, hometown of President Rodrigo Duterte, if it did not secure permission from the Philippine government.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines earlier said it had no other information about the plane except that it was here for refurbishment.
“I have no sufficient info about it except that the landing was for refurbishment i.e. for refueling purposes," military spokesperson Col. Edgard Arevalo said in a text message to ABS-CBN News.
"That being the case, it’s perfectly a legal reason to land in our airports -- with appropriate permissions of course from appropriate government agencies," he added.
The military's apparent lack of knowledge about the plane is "disturbing" because Beijing has a record of spying on host countries and is locked in a territorial dispute with Manila over the South China Sea, said historian and defense analyst Jose Antonio Custodio.
Custodio, citing military sources, said the Chinese plane was in the Philippines for several days, much longer than the time it would have needed to refuel.
The government, he told ANC, should tweak its protocol to ensure that the military is not caught off guard by such incidents.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson also voiced criticism over the landing, saying the Philippines might end up as a colony of China if Manila would not be strict in its protocols and “a hundred Chinese military aircraft” suddenly request to refuel on Philippine soil.