By Dennis Jay Santos
The Philippines on Friday joined the United States, its longtime defense ally, in expressing concern over China’s reported installation of missile systems on contested territory in the South China Sea.
While Manila enjoyed a “recently developed close relationship” with Beijing that boosted its confidence in bilateral ties, the Philippine government would nonetheless explore “all diplomatic means” in approaching China over the deployment of weapons in the disputed sea region, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
“We are concerned with the reported Chinese missile deployments over the contested areas in the West Philippine Sea,” Roque said, using the Philippine name of the South China Sea.
But if the reports proved true, Manila is confident that the missiles “are not directed at us,” he said.
According to a report broken this week by the U.S. news channel CNBC, China has installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems on three islands it controls in the Spratlys, a group of atolls and isles in the South China Sea. The supposedly mineral-rich region is also contested by the Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
In Washington on Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon said the United States had already expressed its concerns over the reported Chinese military build-up, including “militarizing” artificial islands that they had built.
“China has to realize that they’ve benefited from the free navigation of the sea. And the U.S. Navy has been the guarantor of that,” spokeswoman Dana White told reporters, according to an official transcript of a Pentagon press briefing.
The U.S. will continue with its freedom of navigation operations in the area “and ensure that the Chinese understand that they cannot, and should not, be hostile and understand that the Pacific is a place which much commerce goes through,” White said.
“And it’s in their interest to ensure that there’s a free navigation of international waters,” she added.
Last month, the USS Theodore Roosevelt docked in Manila after a freedom of navigation of exercise, partly to test China’s threat to curb travel in the disputed region. Sung Kim, Washington’s ambassador to Manila, said that the aircraft carrier’s presence was a clear sign of the American commitment to the Philippines.
The visit by the American warship came just days after the Chinese reportedly successfully installed equipment capable of jamming communication and radar systems, in an apparent violation of an earlier agreement by claimants to refrain from actions that could add to the tensions in the sea region.
Philippine Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto urged President Rodrigo Duterte to use his “warm personal relationship” with Chinese leaders to stop China from militarizing islands in the sea.
“He has to encash whatever political capital he has with Beijing in asking it to honor its pledge to keep the [West Philippine Sea] a zone of peace and freedom of navigation,” Recto said in a statement.
Duterte could also serve as “peacemaker” in asking all major powers to deescalate tensions in the area, “prevent it from being a [flashpoint], as our country will never benefit from any brawl that might break out right in our own backyard,” he said.
House of Representatives member Gary Alejano, meanwhile, said the installation of Chinese missiles only reflected China’s ongoing aggression in the sea. In his words, Beijing’s actions were “obvious threats to our national security.”
“China continues to build up its military portfolio in the South China Sea despite its repeated pronouncements that it will not militarize the region,” Alejano said.
Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.