By Jojo Rinoza and Richel V. Umel
Manila will investigate what U.S. officials described as a “disturbing” report that Beijing had tested anti-ship ballistic missiles in the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine defense chief said Wednesday.
The Philippines has not monitored such activity, but the report came as both Manila and Beijing were trying to smooth a row caused by the ramming last month of a Filipino fishing boat by a bigger Chinese trawler off Recto Bank, an area within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
“We have no first-hand knowledge about this missile launch except this news report,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told BenarNews. “We will conduct our own inquiry and will decide later what to do if proven correct.”
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that China had tested multiple anti-ship ballistic missiles over the weekend.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) was aware about the missile tests that took place “from the man-made structures in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands,” the news agency quoted Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn as saying.
“What’s truly disturbing about this act is that it’s in direct contradiction to President Xi’s statement in the Rose Garden in 2015 when he pledged to the U.S., the Asia-Pacific region and the world that he would not militarize those man-made outposts,” Eastburn told NBC News, which first reported about the missile test.
Rep. Carlos Zarate, a member of the Philippine opposition, slammed reports about China’s missile testing in the disputed waters.
“China is aggressive as far as Philippines is concerned because our government is doing nothing,” Zarate told BenarNews in a phone interview. “What China is doing is militarization in the Philippine Sea. It will be a problem in the future.”
In Beijing, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked during a daily news briefing on Wednesday about reports on the missile tests.
Spokesman Geng Shuang referred all related questions to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“With respect to the U.S. comments, I would like to remind you that it is the U.S. who has sent aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. The international community sees plainly who is militarizing the South China Sea and disturbing its tranquility,” he added.
China claims most of the South China Sea. This includes areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, which also have overlapping claims to the mineral-rich sea.
Last month, Manila filed a diplomatic protest after 22 Filipino fishermen were left floating at sea for hours after a Chinese trawler struck their boat. They survived after a Vietnamese vessel picked them up.
Lorenzana had initially issued a strongly worded statement and the foreign office filed a diplomatic protest demanding an apology. However, President Rodrigo Duterte later sought to minimize the incident, saying the Philippines could not do anything if the Chinese wanted to fish inside the country’s waters.
Duterte had also admitted to having brokered a secret deal with China to assure the peace in the waters, unknown to Filipino foreign-policy makers and legislators – an act that, his opponents claimed, the president was constitutionally barred from doing.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Duterte wanted China to categorically issue a statement assuring that Filipino fishermen’s rights were protected.
“The President wanted China’s assurance that the rights and safety of our fisher folks are guaranteed,” Panelo said, adding that it also appeared that Duterte agreed with China’s stand not to involve a third-party investigator to last month’s boat-ramming incident.
Meanwhile, Pamalakaya, a group of fishermen in the Philippines, called on the public to unite and protest China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Its leader, Fernando Hicap, demanded that Duterte be held criminally liable “for intentionally failing to uphold the Constitution and other environmental protection laws in defending the West Philippine Sea,” using the other name used by the Philippines for the South China Sea.
“President Duterte should be held criminally accountable for the questionable deals he has entered with China that will deprive our Filipino fishers of fishing rights and will leave the Filipino people food-insecure,” Hicap said.
“Now is the high time for Filipinos to strengthen call to end Chinese incursion in the name of preserving our depleting fish stocks in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in favor of Manila after the Philippines filed a complaint for China’s occupation of Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground that lies within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Evidence presented then on behalf of the Philippines documented that clam extraction by Chinese fishing boats had damaged around 25,000 hectares of shallow-reef surfaces. China ignored the ruling, and a tense diplomatic standoff followed. When Duterte became president, his first act was to appease the Chinese.
Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.