By Luis Liwanag and Karl Romano
The Philippines on Thursday played down as “speculation” a U.S. report that China may be nuclearizing its outposts in the contested South China Sea region.
Still, a Philippine government spokesman expressed concern about the report on China, Manila’s newfound benefactor under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who has made it a point to repair bilateral ties with Beijing after an international arbitration court’s ruling in 2016 rejected its sweeping territorial claims in favor of the Philippines.
“We are not in a position to verify that and as you correctly said, it is even in the nature of speculation,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said. “It is a possibility according to American sources. So we leave it at that.”
“We’re concerned about the entry of any and all nuclear weapons into the Philippine territory because our Constitution provides that we are a nuclear-free zone,” Roque said.
The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc has an existing nuclear-free zone treaty, Roque said, and the Philippines, like its neighbors, is concerned that any foreign power “be it American, Russian Chinese may bring nuclear war heads into our territory.”
“The important point to underscore is we have a nuclear-free policy and that should be applied to all countries including the Americans, because Americans have been using nuclear-powered [ships] and have been stationing warships with nuclear capability as well,” Roque added.
In a report to the American Congress released last week and titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” the U.S. Defense Department warned that Beijing may be moving to equip islands and reefs that it controls in the disputed sea region with floating nuclear power stations.
“China’s plans to power these islands may add a nuclear element to the territorial dispute. In 2017, China indicated development plans may be underway to power islands and reefs in the typhoon-prone South China Sea with floating nuclear power stations; development reportedly is to begin prior to 2020,” the report said.
ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the mineral-rich sea region, as do China and rival Taiwan.
The overlapping claims are considered a flashpoint in the region and while claimants agreed to refrain from any actions that would complicate the matter, China has been expanding and militarizing territories it occupies.
During an annual meeting of ASEAN diplomats in Singapore earlier this month, officials announced that China had agreed to a draft of a “code of conduct” to govern actions in the area after three months of negotiations that ended in June.
The agreement was hailed as a breakthrough although diplomats and defense experts in the region expressed cautious optimism. A top U.S. State Department official who had visited Manila recently also said Washington would continue to assert its freedom of navigation over the disputed sea, amid concerns of frequent warnings from China on passing air and naval forces there.