By Dennis Jay Santos and Karl Romano
The Philippines says it is “closely monitoring” developments in the disputed South China Sea region, but believes China posed no threat despite fresh intelligence reports that Beijing has landed nuclear-capable jets on an island it occupies.
Beijing set off international concerns about regional security after it landed long-range bomber planes such as the H-6K, which is capable of carrying air-launched cruise missiles, on one of its occupied islands for the first time as part of training exercises last week.
“We are taking the appropriate diplomatic action necessary to protect our claims and will continue to do so in the future,” Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Monday.
“We reiterate our commitment to protect every single inch of our territory and areas which we have sovereign rights over,” it said, adding that it had remained silent over the issue at the weekend because it was not its policy to “publicize every action” it takes regarding the West Philippine Sea, also known as the South China Sea.
It said by keeping silent and working behind the scenes, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has in fact gained much and was working silently to advance its cause more.
“Moving forward, we are taking a different approach to avoid any drawbacks and challenges,” it said, without elaborating.
Calls to the foreign department were not immediately returned, but Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said there appeared “no independent verification” of the report of the Chinese nuclear-capable bombers, despite official tweets by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force about the development
The think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said it had monitored the bombers landing on a Chinese-occupied island in the region. The Philippines, it said, falls within a 1,000-nautical mile radius capability of the bombers.
“Firstly, we have no independent verification of that,” Roque told reporters in Manila. “But nonetheless, we take note of the reports that appeared and we express our serious concerns anew on its impact on constructive efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region.”
Southeast Asian countries have already called for non-militarization of the area and for all claimants to exercise self-restraint to avoid complicating the situation, he said.
The reports on the Chinese bombers came shortly after AMTI, which watches developments in the region, also said that China had reportedly installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems on three islands in the Spratlys, a disputed group of atolls and isles in the South China Sea. The mineral-rich region is also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
AMTI had also published satellite photos of Chinese military intelligence aircraft in one of the islands that Beijing controls.
The Philippines, Roque said, reaffirms the need to “enhance mutual trust and confidence, avoid actions that would escalate tensions.”
“We will bring this issue again in the bilateral mechanism that we have agreed upon with China,” Roque said.
Members of a bilateral panel meet twice a year, Roque said, explaining that he was told that there would be a scheduled meeting for the second quarter, possibly in June.
“So, the matter will be brought up in the bilateral mechanism that we have established on the West Philippine Sea specifically with China,” he said.
However, while the government views the issue with “very serious concern,” Roque said it was confident that China posed no immediate security threat.
“The President does not see any immediate threat. As I said, we do not consider China to be a threat to our security right now because of our new-found friendship with China,” he said.
Since becoming president in 2016, Duterte has made it a point to appease Beijing, which has been angered by a ruling of an international arbitration court favoring the Philippines.
The previous administration of Benigno Aquino had taken China to court after its ships encroached in the Scarborough Shoal, which lies in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. After three years, the court ruled in favor of Manila in July 2016, when Duterte was already the president.
China, however, refused to comply with the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration and continued with its island-building activities in the region.
Last week, Duterte reiterated that the Philippines was in no position to challenge Beijing, explaining that its weak military could easily be defeated if Manila went to war with China over the islands.
“What will we arm ourselves with if there’s a war?” he said, according to a statement released by the presidential palace on Sunday. “Will we resort to slapping each other?”
But critics said that the Philippines’ win in the tribunal was already a diplomatic victory for the country, in the face of Chinese aggression.
“The Duterte administration, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, has been giving us the same rhetoric – they will confirm and study the reports,” said Rep. Gary Alejano, a former Marine captain. “While they are insisting that there have been diplomatic actions, the result that we are seeing on the ground is an emboldened China pushing our limits.”
He said the Philippines’ was “becoming a liability to other claimant nations and neighboring states.”
“The Duterte administration has compromised the security of the entire region with its silence over China’s expansionism,” he said.